Being a certified expert on muliebrity, I understand the way a woman’s mind works. Therefore, I generously advise young swains with wise axioms like “A woman will never get angry with you when you are trying to tell her how attractive she is.” Additionally, “compliments complex, creative, confusing, even a bit indecorous cause a woman to think about you much harder and longer.”

Putting such axioms into practice is a high art involving proper timing and considerable boldness – not for the faint of heart or weak of mind. Thus having dinner on Valentine’s Day last with my son’s family I thought I should share one outstanding episode of the brilliant courtship by which I overwhelmed his mother.

I had been dating Margaret about 8 months and moving very slowly so as not to frighten her off with my manifold charms. On Valentine’s Day 1954 I decided I needed to speed up my game. That night we had a date to the college library and when she was sedulously studying, I drew a heart on a piece of note paper, folded it, wrote a message inside, and passed it over.

The message read, “I will be your Valentine if you will be my Concubine.” Those were more innocent times than now and, of course, Margaret could not say anything during the library quiet hours, but the missionary’s daughter blushed a startled and fiery red. I was quite satisfied knowing that she would not dignify my improper request by any comment at all, but also knowing that she was now aware that I was thinking about a relationship beyond a library date.

In offering this account to our son and his wife, I waited until their small children were in the kitchen, but Abigail, age six, wandered back to the table in time to hear the end of the story. When the other little girls heard the laughter they came in to ask its cause. Abigail explained, “Granddad once told Grandmom, ‘I will be your Valentine, if you will be my Porcupine’.”

The other night that family was watching a DVD of “La Bohème” in which Rudolpho says to Mimi, “Tell me that you love me.” One of the little girls piped up, “At least he did not ask her to be his Porcupine.”


Panic in the Pulpit

Most of us learn to preach by imitation and we imitate what we admire. When I was in seminary, the preacher I most admired wrote his sermons in a black, 6 by 9 notebook — so I bought a 6 by 9 notebook.

Moreover, I noticed that when he was ready to turn a page, he made a dramatic gesture toward heaven and while everyone was looking up, he flipped the page. I practiced that maneuver too.

Like most seminarians I thought I had a call to ministry, but I was not certain that I would ever get a job in ministry.

All the churches I had served as a seminarian were very small when I was there and became defunct soon after I left. I did not think that their closing was attributable to my preaching, but I often wondered. In later years, I became the presbyter’s designated hitter. When a congregation was without a minister and the pulpit nominating committee was moving slowly, I was appointed to be the supply preacher, which always mobilized them into immediate and frantic action and a permanent pastor was very soon found.

In any case, on the night before my first pulpit audition — and because I wanted to make an especially good impression on the congregation — I recopied my sermon notes in my black notebook. The next day the service went smoothly until it came time for the sermon.

When I opened my notebook, I could not locate my sermon. I knew it was in there somewhere, but I did not see how I could admit that I had misplaced it without raising some grim questions about my competence. Moreover, I knew that, no matter how many heavenward gestures I might make, I could not keep the congregation staring at the ceiling long enough to find it. Therefore, in an absolute panic, I decided to preach for the first (and only) time entirely without notes, expecting that through the good offices of a kind providence my points would come back to me. Alternatively, I rather hoped I might be given an even better sermon, since we are told, “Do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour” (Matthew 10:19). I figured my hour had come.

Therefore, I launched into the introduction and the first point, but when I finished that material, no second point appeared. By now it was entirely too late to admit that I was winging my way from a blank sheet of paper, and I could not very well stop with a five-minute sermon. So I turned to another blank page and preached the first point again in the past tense, hoping that by the time I got to the third point, I would remember, and could use, the second point for the third.

Unfortunately, nothing new occurred to me so for the third time I preached the first point again, this time in the future tense.

When I had occupied sufficient time to think about quitting, I realized that without the second and third point I could not produce a conclusion. Therefore, I put the introduction in the conditional tense and preached it with dramatic sincerity as a charge to the congregation. Then I let go with a heartfelt prayer and sat down to reconsider my vocational options and the waste of a seminary education.

The congregation was disposed to be kind, but a few years later, a dear friend admitted to me that on this Sunday she had confided to her diary, “Whatever else you can say about this preacher, he makes his point VERY CLEAR!”

Anyway, I later discovered that while I was dying a thousand deaths in the pulpit, the chair of the nominating committee was paying very little attention to me. She was watching my wife! Now I have always been delighted to be judged on the merits of my wife. And when our two young children became restless during the sermon, Margaret reached into her purse and handed each of them a piece of string. They spent the rest of the service happily and quietly wrapping and unwrapping the string around their fingers.

Unknown to me, at that moment, and for that cause, I became the unanimous choice of the pulpit nominating committee. They figured that any woman smart enough to carry string in her purse to keep bored children occupied was not so dumb as to marry a man who would not be an acceptable pastor.

Margaret McClure Partee: A Happy Childhood Memory

Sudan is a terrorist state today, but years ago it was a fascinating place for a small child to be. At age 5, I remember being taken to a missionary meeting on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. While the adults made plans for the following year, my brother (age 3), my sister (age 2), and I made plans to explore our surroundings. Dad knew what we had in mind, and he also knew that wild animals wandered through the thick vegetation nearby. We could hear the call of hyenas and wild dogs in the distance as well as hippos snorting in the water below the lodge. To keep us out of trouble, Dad employed a local woman to watch us during the daylight hours, but this arrangement did not suit us. After all, at home we ran free where crocodiles swam in the river, cobras invaded our house, and lions occasionally came into our front yard.

Soon our babysitter joined the other women who had started talking and laughing, allowing the three McClure kids to skip off. I don’t remember how far we got before we were caught, but long enough to get the whole camp in an uproar. As punishment we were plunked in our rooms for the rest of the day, but permitted out for a picnic supper overlooking (at some distance) the pool where the hippos played. We were even allowed to eat one of the local dishes, french-fried grasshoppers, which was a treat we thought would be forbidden because of our escapade.

The grown-ups retired early, and my brother and I tip-toed out on the balcony to see what animals we could spot in the lights of the lodge. We were astonished to see our father strolling down to the river toward the hippo pool. Suddenly, 4 tons of enraged mama hippo burst out of the sawgrass heading straight for Dad intent on protecting her baby. Dad took off at warp speed since he knew that despite their bulk hippos can run faster than humans. The knife-sharp saw grass cut at his bare legs and threatened to trip him up with the hippo getting closer and closer. Just in the nick of time, the mama hippo turned aside to take care of her baby which was crying piteously for her.

It was all a very exciting event for the two watchers on the balcony who saw the action as staged just for them.

Two Views of History

I always thought it was wonderfully ironic to be appointed to teach church history when I took only one history course in my life. Too late to catch me now.  History of doctrine was what I actually taught, and that is a kind of history, I suppose, but not what most people expect.  Anyway, without competent instruction myself, I began each semester’s class with the observation that–

There are two views of history.  One is the Big Lump theory.  The Big Lump theory holds that history is like a dog’s dinner in which separate pieces of incompletely digested food are returned to the upper air connected only loosely with a pearly slime.

The second view is the Steady Stream theory.  The Steady Stream theory holds that history is like a brass spittoon filled with items from many sources.  And when one attempts to drink those contents, you find yourself unable to stop anywhere because the contents go down your throat in a steady stream with, of course, a few glugs on the larger pieces.

This class subscribes to the steady stream theory, but we will pause to examine various lumps using a Programmed Learning Operating Procedure–in educational circles called the PLOP release.  That is, we will dance across the pastures of history only occasionally stepping into something fragrant.

Showtime and Chair Days

“Wast Thou ordained, dear Father,/ To lose thy youth in peace,
and to achieve/ The silver livery of advisèd age/ And in thy reverence
and thy chair days . . . .” (II Henry VI. V.2. 45-8)

Because 94% of the land in Iowa is devoted to agriculture, the philosophy faculties of the various universities in that state regularly and predictably complain about so much attention paid to farm animals. Truth to tell, most Iowans do indeed put the horse before Descartes. However, there are sound anthropological reasons to study the horse. I know several persons who are most accurately described as an equine behind.

Looking at the subject from the other side (as Lady Godiva recommended), we should recognize that René Descartes (1596-1650) is very important in western intellectual history. Descartes shifted the basic question from being to knowing — from ontology to epistemology. Western Christians, then, are heirs of two epistemological traditions: the Hebrew view of knowing by hearing (“Hear, O Israel” Deuteronomy 6:4) and the Greek view of knowing by seeing (Plato, Phaedrus, 250d; Republic VI, 507c). Although we can employ the phrase, “I hear you,” to mean “I understand” we generally use “I see.” While some theologians working in seminaries and some working in congregations will continue to seek answers to the complex issues of being and knowing, a growing number of Presbyterian pastors have lost all interest in these questions.

A quarter century ago it was shockingly claimed that the average American who reached 30 years of age had devoted two around-the-clock years to television watching. This means that even larger groups of people today are more comfortable with observation directed toward the actor’s stage than in reflection directed toward the scholar’s rostrum. Responding to an age of rough anxiety by providing smooth entertainment (from malaise to mayonnaise) may be acceptable to Methodists and Baptists (let them say), but Presbyterians, I always thought, were differently re-formed. Their pulpits were once the places where accredited-seminary-trained teaching elders invited the company of the faithful to “Hear, understand, and obey the Word of the Lord!” Today, even in Presbyterian churches, the teacher’s platform is being replaced by the actor’s boards. Liturgy has moved from the theologian’s proclamation to the thespian’s performance. The scholar’s robe is replaced by the clown’s motley, and the dumbing down of worship continues. Many churches now have an intermission, pausing between the acts of the worship of God to “greet one another” by shaking hands, hugging and chattering briefly until the salvation drama begins again. Soon Presbyterians will join the sports crowd throwing up their arms in sequence around the sanctuary doing a “wave offering to the Lord” (Numbers 5:25). Then, the pom pom persons will shake their stuff and our cheerleaders will demand, “Gimme a ‘G.'” “Gimme an ‘O.'” “Gimme a ‘D.'” If contemporary worship must resemble a television show, surely our learned clergy should at least offer more theological direction to the amateurs who want to perform possessed of no greater instruction than their enthusiasm for the footlights.

The Gospel we believe is for all people and not just an intellectual and cultural elite. Nevertheless, churches that can be denominated are inevitably social entities and appeal to the belonging needs of different groups of people. May I whisper, dear reader, into your ear alone: Faith and action in the Presbyterian tradition demands more than ordinary pastors and people, and Reformed theology, taken seriously, should produce a highest common denomination. The present mad desire for wide popularity will find a lowest common denomination by saying to the entire ecclesiastical world, “We Presbyterians can let down our theological and liturgical standards faster than you can!” True dignity today probably does not require a bald head, a Homburg hat, a three piece suit and a stomach watch chain, but it also does not require shaggy hair, a scraggly beard, sandals, and dirty toe nails.

The problem, of course, is that none of us has a perfectly balanced and universally applicable formula for the relation of sound theological substance and captivating popular style. In addition, every congregation exhibits a daunting diversity of ability, taste, and sophistication. Nevertheless, our worship leaders are still called ministers of the word not producers of the play. Sermons should still be designed to exalt the sublime glory of the one God not to meet the therapeutic needs of the most customers. We can all happily affirm the educational value of “show and tell,” but, no matter how popular it might be, showtime cannot replace telltime in the Christian church. Proclamation is not a star-turn soliloquy from center stage delivered by an accomplished actor. Rather, sermons involve a congregational listening together for the living Word of the living God.

The really important theological moment for Martin Luther came at the Diet of Worms in 1521 when he declared to the world, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” The really important liturgical moment for me came at church the other day when I declared to myself, “Here I sit. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” That means when the drum roll is called up yonder, I am not moving from my chair if the beat is provided by a stubble-faced, tee-shirted, backwardly baseball-capped dude banging on a bongo

My Brilliant Courtship

Some of you may not be familiar with the T U L I P anagram which is commonly supposed to be a mnemonic device summarizing the main doctrines of Calvinism. These five doctrines are often called the five fundaments of Calvinism, but we must put behind us the tale that wags the dogma. The “T” stands for total depravity, the “U” for unconditional election, the “L” for limited atonement, the “I” for irresistible grace, and the “P” for preservation of the saints.

The following narrative offers an alternative explanation and is therefore an edifying tale. You will be an improved person for knowing it and, doubtless, be grateful to me for offering this account.

There are many great romances in the Western world: Romeo and Juliet; Hamlet and Ophelia; Othello and Desdemona; Tristan and Isolte; Frankie and Johnnie. However, the greatest of them all is Charles and Margaret. Therefore, I give you Charles recounting the story of his brilliant courtship in his own voice: “By the time I finished high school it had become obvious to me, for reasons which common decency and social delicacy forbid me to discuss, that I really ought to get married. I had known since I was 13 years old that I wanted to be a minister, and I chose a college where I figured a minister’s wife—mine—might reasonably be expected to be found. In my late teens it had come to me in a blazing insight that I had neither the physiology, intelligence, nor character to raise a family alone.

When I got to college, I smiled a lot with the side of my mouth and tried to look mysterious, but none of the young women seemed disposed to let me know how much I was fascinating them. You may find it difficult to believe, but—in those days—I was regarded as a devil with the ladies and obviously more drastic measures were called for if I was going to find the wife that God predestined me to have.

Ever the scholar, it seemed appropriate to do research on the matter. Thus, I first collected the names of all the women on the dean’s list. It seemed evident that God would want me to marry a woman who was smart enough to be challenged to see what she could make of me. This procedure produced twenty candidates who might be intelligent enough to be considered for my hand. Secondly, I carefully studied the pictures in the college yearbook. I had no special inclination to spend my life with someone I didn’t enjoy looking at, and I knew the Lord felt the same way. That procedure narrowed the candidates to ten. Thirdly, I asked the Dean of Women for the church preference list. I figured my wife would have to be a Calvinist, since everyone knows that a woman who is brilliant and beautiful and not a Calvinist is in an unstable condition. That left me with four names. The first was eight feet tall, a fact which was not revealed in the yearbook. I crossed her name off—not because I resented looking up to women—but I was not about to climb a stepladder in order to—er—gaze into her eyes. The second turned out to be engaged so I, being an honorable man, crossed her name off my list of prospects, too. I called the third one but she said she couldn’t go out with me because she had to wash her hair that night. I called her every day for three months and would you believe that woman washed her hair each night for all three months? I finally quit calling her because I did not want to marry anybody whose head was that dirty. Besides, from all that washing she is probably completely bald now and one of those in any family is surely sufficient.

That process left Margaret as the lucky one. I must admit that I was not especially happy with that result. I did not mind marrying an intelligent woman, but I had reservations about one who was obviously so much smarter than I was. Moreover, I discovered that she was planning to go back to Africa as a missionary doctor. Not only did she have brains, beauty, and theological integrity—what was worse she had plans which did not include me. I complained to the Lord that He wasn’t making it easy for me, but He just grinned. I could tell that God had predestined her for me so I set about to accomplish the will of God.

The first problem was to get her to notice me. I was sure I had solved that difficulty when I observed that she would carefully cross the street to avoid walking past me. Still I didn’t see how I was going to give her the opportunity to marry me unless I could talk to her first. So I paid good money to a fellow to move from her table in the dining room so that I could sit directly across from her. I expected to charm her with sprightly table conversations, but this did not work because she would neither look at me nor speak to me. Thus I decided I would keep quiet and stare fixedly at her all through breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This went on for six months. Finally, one day she broke down and spoke to me. I will never forget her first words. She said, “It is rude to stare,” and I could tell from the way she said it that she was terribly smitten with me. Then I went to the library in her absence and located her carrel. I removed the name and books from the carrel next to hers and put mine in their place. When I leaned over to see what she was reading, I knew I was in trouble. She had taped a little motto on the shelf which read: ‘For a woman to get ahead in this world she has to be twice as good as a man. Fortunately that’s easy!’

Still, I understood why Margaret was fighting this great attraction; my reputation as a heart-breaker was well established. Therefore, she felt obligated to date this other guy who was really a monster, and I knew I must save her from David. He was totally unsuitable for her, but she thought that she liked him, and I did not know what to do until I read in my Bible that ‘all is fair in love and war.’ I knew then that I had my marching orders so I went to David and explained that he was wasting his time because Margaret was really crazy about me. I knew that was, what we call in ethics, proleptically true. That is, she would be crazy about me if I could get near her. And, of course, David never asked her for another date because it did not occur to him that a pre-ministerial student would be able to change a present contrary to fact condition into a future truth.

Anyway, after 30 years of marriage and five children, I thought it was safe to explain to Margaret what had happened to David and the other guys. She had always wondered, but I must say, she took it in good part—she hit me over the head with her purse—illustrating the biblical prophesy that the victor gets crowned.
“I have told you this edifying story because it illustrates the incredible power of predestination in action. You learned the TULIP anagram in theology, right? Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement. . .
Actually it means “Totally Unscrupulous Lover in Pursuit.”

Thy Sweet Love

University education is a relatively new and limited opportunity in Ethiopian society with punctuality a serious problem.  Professors found it impossible to convince students to appear for class on time.  Some teachers requested late arrivals to enter quietly and sit at the back of the room, others locked the door, all kinds of threats were issued but all were ignored.  For 50 years tardy scholars continued to knock on the door and interrupt the class.

My son, Jonathan, decided this practice must stop, so each day he warned his physics class at the University of Addis Ababa that after 14 days any student arriving past the appointed hour would be required to stand in front of the class and read aloud a Shakespearean sonnet selected by the professor.  Exactly two weeks later, a tardy scholar knocked on the door.

He was graciously invited to enter, and handed the famous Sonnet 29 which begins:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state, 
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, 
And look upon myself, and curse my fate[.]

and ends

Haply I think on thee,and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day ascending, 
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate; 
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings 
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Apparently a sea of smirking faces, washing over a hapless thespian, can drown a cultural proclivity for punctual indifference.  In any case, no student of physics was ever late to class again.