How My Wife Met Me

As a teenager, it came to me in one of those blazing flashes of insight for which I would later become famous that if I wanted a family I would need a woman’s help. The problem was how to put myself in position for the right woman to find me.
Giving this question considerable reflection, I concluded that I should go to the college which she was attending. Soon after I arrived on campus I decided to narrow the field in order to avoid a pandemic of heartbreak in the girls’ (as they were called in those days) dormitories.
My first requirement was a woman smart enough to accept the challenge of making something of me. So I obtained the Dean’s List to check out the most intelligent among them. Second, although I had no theological objection to the absence of form or comeliness (Isaiah 53:2), I had a decided preference for the presence of both. So I carefully studied the college yearbook for the good looking ones. Third, since my mother told me that women who are bright and beautiful and not Presbyterian are most likely in an unstable condition, I checked the church preference list.
This procedure produced four names. The first one was already engaged so I backed off. The second was eight feet tall. I was not interested in climbing a ladder to–er–gaze into her eyes. I called the third one several times but she was always scheduled to wash her hair that night. I finally figured out that she had some rare skin disease and I quit calling. That left Margaret, and when I announced that she had won the prize–namely me–I must admit she hid her delight extremely well.
In fact, to my dismay, I discovered Margaret was crossing streets to avoid encountering me. At our college, each semester we had assigned tables in the dining room, so I paid good money to a guy to move so I could occupy his chair across from Margaret. Still she would neither look at me nor speak to me. I ate three meals a day for two months staring at her. When she finally looked me in the eye, she said, “It is rude to stare,” I could tell she was powerfully smitten by me.
However, Margaret had other suitors and they worried me. Then I read in the Bible that all is fair in love and war. I went to each one and told him he was wasting his time since Margaret was crazy about me. That was what philosophers call “proleptic truth.” That is, it was going to be the truth if I could get them to drop out of the competition, which they all did because they did not understand that philosophic distinction. Moreover, the Bible teaches that a faint heart never won a fair lady. Therefore, I did Margaret a big favor in recognizing their lack of persistence and removing them from her life.
After twenty years of marriage and five children, I thought it was safe to explain to Margaret what had happened to all those gullible swains. She had always wondered. It was the only time I ever saw her eyes cross and steam come out of both ears at the same time.
Now, if you ask Margaret, she will deny that this is a true account, but I ask you, “Would I lie to you?”

Advertisements

My Fabulous Football Career

In the fall, a young man’s fancy turns lightly to thoughts of football. And an old man’s, too. At least my fancy. In my very small Arkansas high school, every boy who could walk was expected to go out for football. Otherwise, we assumed the pretty girls would ignore us completely. Playing quarterback, I rather hoped one of them might think I was both tough and smart. The nice thing about my present memory is that I am now the hero of more games than I actually played.
Our fullback, Billy, really was a tough kid, but could never learn that even-numbered plays ran to the right and odd-numbered plays ran to the left. Billy ran wherever he thought he saw an opening, which meant that you had to block your opponent straight up. The only time I ever saw Billy slowed down was when he swallowed his entire chew (past tense chaw) of tobacco.
I was never all that keen on getting knocked around, but I really did want the girls to notice me. One night I tackled a guy by lifting him completely off the turf. Trouble was he kept running and kicked me in a spot which immediately put us both on the ground. Limping off the field, both groaning and groining, I got an injury cheer, but I hoped our cheerleaders did not know its precise cause. In the same game–remember this was in the days of 130 pound fullbacks, leather helmets, and no face guards–some kid bloodied my nose with his elbow. Unfortunately, this time I got no cheer because the bleeding stopped before I could make my way to the sideline.
Football fans my age will remember the single-wing formation. We ran the “Notre Dame box” most of the time but experimented with the new-fangled “T-formation.” One problem with the “T” is that moment when every member of the team is looking up the field except the quarterback who is looking down the field. This meant that only I could see that somehow I had handed the ball not to our halfback, but to the other team’s defensive guard. This guard was huge, fat, and slow, but only I knew he was shuffling toward the winning touchdown. He was way too big to knock down with a normal tackle; so I ran up and jumped on his back. This move slowed him down not at all. Thinking with the lightning speed for which I was already becoming famous, I realized that he could easily carry me across the goal line. So I snaked a leg around in front and tripped him, being careful to remove my own leg before he fell on it.
Only once did I come near to the athletic appreciation I felt I deserved. When the gun sounded on a big victory, our exultant female fans came pouring out of the stands. Since quarterbacks always think ahead, I whipped off my helmet in order to participate more directly in any expression of gratitude that might come my way. I braced myself when I saw our head cheerleader heading toward me, but to my intense disappointment she veered away allowing the coach’s wife to grab me instead. Being wildly kissed by the coach’s wife was not what I had in mind, and did absolutely nothing for my 17-year old heart.
Perspectives do change over the years. So, if you know some 35-year old coach’s wife who wants to bestow a kiss on me, tell her, “What the dickens, Partee is willin’.”

Love Match

The fact is that a woman hitting a forehand shot down the line cannot avoid producing a fascinating jiggle, which can be thoroughly enjoyed by the disgusting man on the other side of the net. When Margaret and I were first dating, we played a lot of tennis. Since I was better than she was, I could make her run back and forth across the court–bouncing alluringly all the way. It did not take long for her to figure out that that I was “outing her figure,” but, of course, as a lady she could not give voice to her suspicions. Moreover, her competitive instinct kicked in and she chased every ball with great energy–all to my natural and intense delight.
The summer we were married (and after Margaret had forgiven me for stepping on her veil during the wedding recessional and ripping it off her head), I entered the Louisiana Open Tennis Tournament. I won my first match against a guy three times my age, but then I caught the number one seed. He was so superior to me that during the warm-up he hit the ball back with the handle (!) of his racquet. Obviously, this demonstration of contempt is completely contrary to all the canons of the game. Somehow I got the first serve, and having absolutely nothing to lose, I hit the ball as hard as I could and “aced” him. The little crowd which had come to watch him applauded me! I did not win another point.
Our first married Christmas, Margaret knit me a beautiful tennis sweater, which I wish I had been able to wear at the Louisiana Open. Sadly, we were too poor to afford decent yarn and, while the sweater looked nice, it stretched like crazy. Thus, swinging at the ball caused the sleeve to slide down my arm and swallow the racquet. An eight-foot arm is a fearful sight.
Much later when we moved into a retirement complex, I thought its only drawback was the absence of a tennis court–a view I generously shared with the powers-that-be. I am certain this suggestion went immediately to the top of the Great Idea List. However, a few months later, I had the good fortune to be chosen for a total knee replacement (a circumstance I explained to Margaret as the inevitable result of carrying around this heavily-muscled body for so many years).
This knee-thing deflated all my erstwhile enthusiasm for the tennis racket, and I suspect that the prescient retirement village administration saves a lot of money by benevolent delay, being well aware that, as residents grow long in the tooth, their ancient good becomes, forsooth, uncouth.

Underappreciated

I suppose every husband feels underappreciated by his wife, but no man with more justice than myself. By way of example, I cite the time when I managed to shut the door on my head. After this painful event, I hurried back to our apartment with large red creases framing my face, ear to jaw, expecting some wifely appreciation of my situation, only to be greeted with gales of laughter. This result plainly demonstrates that the feminine instinct for sympathy is greatly overrated.
At the time we were living in student housing and, for some unaccountable reason, Margaret insisted that I smoke my cigars (when I could afford one) in the hall. A single student owning a kitten and living nearby somehow detected that I was in the hall, cracked his door open, and called me over to talk.
When our conversation concluded, the cat wanted out; so I had to lean over to see the tiny animal and gently push her back into the room with my foot. Quickly withdrawing my foot at the bottom, I slammed the door closed at the top, neglecting to remove my head.
This tragedy was compounded in that I bit my five-cent cigar right in half and Scotch tape would not repair it. The triumph, which I thought my wife was smart enough to recognize, was that very few men have the ability to concentrate on a task so completely as to allow them to shut a door on their own head. You try it sometime. I am still extremely proud of this accomplishment.

A Big Yearning for a Little Heresy

I have always had a strong desire to be tried for heresy. Heretics are exciting people while orthodoxy such as mine is completely unremarkable and rather dull. I am not so daring as to want to be convicted of heresy but to be charged with heresy would be a great delight. I assume that every physician longs to get sick so he can diagnose himself. Every lawyer must yearn to be sued so that she can prepare a brilliant defense. Every banker surely anticipates the thrill of losing a lot of his own money so he can rejoice in turning a profit. Likewise, every minister yearns to be charged with heresy. It is the ultimate personal validation of one’s individual creativity within a professional calling. Sad to say, this event is quite unlikely for me because I stand in the precise middle of the spectrum of the Reformed tradition. To my right are the tight-lipped fundamentalists and to my left are the wild-eyed liberals.
I did not understand this situation years ago when I finished seminary and received the wonderful old Bachelor of Divinity (since disappeared in the mists of degree inflation). Examined by the proper judicatory and assuming I held rather advanced views, I attempted to start a rabid theological controversy over the doctrine of the immortality of the soul versus the resurrection of the body. To my surprise, I discovered my examiners recognized that every belief of mine illustrated the best of the Reformed consensus. With some chagrin on my part, I received the denominational seal of approval and sank without a ripple into the calm, still waters of perfect orthodoxy.
Since that time I have taught all of the heresies of church history with considerable enthusiasm, but lamentably have never been charged with one myself. I am envious of Martin Luther who went to the Leipzig Disputation (1519) accompanied by 200 armed (!) students ready, willing, and even eager to spill their blood for the doctrines they had learned in his classroom. I cannot imagine my students willing to spill their cold coffee for me, but one never knows his warm defenders until he has come under hot attack.
If the statute of limitations has not expired, I may still have a chance to be noticed. Because the Presbyterian church has a free rather than a fixed liturgy, as a new pastor I felt responsible personally, biblically, theologically, and linguistically for the shape of the sacraments celebrated in the congregation I served. Studying this subject carefully, I realized that in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) the baptismal formula is not free but fixed! Ministers are required to say “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (W-3.3606). Since I am resolutely old-fangled, I don’t suppose anyone minds too much that I still use the earlier “Thee” form rather than the new-fangled “you” form. I figure time does not make ancient couth ungood.
More seriously this mandated formula created for me a conflict between polity and theology. Without doubt polity matters but biblically-attested theology matters more, so for 40 years plus I have quietly baptized individuals “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (cf. Matthew 28:19; Acts 19:5; Romans 6:3). The truth is that baptism represents our incorporation into the name of the triune God — the ecclesiastical celebration of our union with Christ effected by the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Galatians 3:27: “As many of you were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
I grant the New Testament uses the Greek word “en” (en) which is translated by the English “in” and therefore “in the name” is not incorrect if properly understood. However, in dealing with baptism, the New Testament also uses the Greek “ei”” (eis) which is translated “into.” I am convinced that the common English usage of the word “in” is seldom understood to mean incorporation. In baptism it is too often thought an adult is making a decision, or a child has one made for him or her, to be identified with the Christian God or, even more incorrectly, with the Christian church. This misunderstanding makes the sacrament of baptism the choice of the individual or parents rather than the act of God that it really is.
The modification from “in” to “into” is so subtle (like me) as to be virtually unnoticeable (again, like me). Moreover, I would imagine Permanent Judicial Committees might need to engage much more destructive deviations from constitutional requirements before they get on my case. Perhaps they might even consider those terribly up-to-date and misguided pastors who (presumably thinking to avoid sexist language) reject the whole formula and baptize “in the name of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” ignorantly appealing to the divine work schedule rather than the three holy names of the one personal God.
Since there is nothing on earth more stubborn and persistent than a true Calvinist who thinks he is divinely right, I will continue to affirm my understanding and practice until caught and corrected. Calvin set us stubborn Presbyterians a wonderful example when he was told he was wrong. Calvin responded, “You are not charging me with error, you are attacking God’s Holy Spirit” (Institutes I.18.3; again at IV.17.20).
I now suspect my personal orthodoxy was established at my trial sermon before the Presbytery of East Arkansas. The text was John 1:6 which properly reads, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [Calvin].” I demonstrated to all and sundry that in grammatical form this verse was an ellipsis and required the name Calvin for proper understanding.
Unfortunately, I do not understand all elliptical expressions. The other day I heard a young woman described as “built like a brick house.” I suspect an ellipsis somewhere in that phrase because, while certainly shapely, she did not look all that sturdy to me.

A Chest Hair Named Fred

When he was a teen-ager, my son, who was not wearing a shirt, approached his mother and said, “Look, Mom.” “I’m looking.” “What do you see?” “I see your chest.” “Yes, but what do you see on my chest?” “What am I supposed to see on your chest?” “You’re supposed to see a chest hair named Fred.”

Obviously, if that event had not actually occurred, I would never have the wit to create it. I think it is amusing, touching, and so intensely personal as to be faintly embarrassing. It also reveals a wonderful sense of the absurd. What could be more ridiculous than a chest hair — and named — Fred? I cannot get that phrase out of my head. Thus I have devoted some heavy theological reflection to Fred’s situation.

I understand that a great deal of the experience of God’s grace and the human condition is not gender specific. On the other hand, I accept that some experiences are both particular and peculiar to one or the other sex, a fact which I trace to the One who created us male and female. All my life I have experienced God’s grace and the human condition as a male person. I have no idea what, if anything, is comparable in feminine social and physical and intellectual development to the masculine discovery of a chest hair. And even if I were told, I would understand only the words and not the experience. However, in the dear, dim, distant past, I was a boy myself, and I think I can speak with some assurance when I state that a chest hair makes no real difference to anything.

Now everyone knows that history (which I just happen to teach) is the most interesting of all areas of study because it includes everything. Perhaps some are not aware of the fascinating adiaphoristic controversy of the 16th century which dealt with indifferent things. There was general agreement that some things are good, true and commanded; some things are bad, false and forbidden.

The question was, are there things which are really neutral — neither good nor bad nor true nor false, not commanded nor forbidden, but merely indifferent? The first item on the docket was chest hair and by a two-thirds majority vote the subject was declared adiapahora. Abstaining, of course, were the hairy Krishnas.

A chest hair comes very near to perfect non-significance. It produces neither warmth nor beauty and yet our attention and a great deal of it is often directed toward things that scarcely matter at all — except that they matter to us! I am borrowing the phrase, “A Chest Hair Named Fred,” for my entry in the cosmic sweepstakes contest for human absurdity (Men’s Division). We can all appreciate and empathize with a young male who, focusing on himself, wonders in a small way about the ultimate relation of appearance and reality.

John Calvin insisted that not one drop of rain falls except on God’s sure and certain command (Institutes I.16.5). I find that assertion extremely difficult to understand but absolutely impossible to deny. On the days when I can believe it, I find it of immense comfort.

Now, with deepest regret and profound sorrow, I am compelled to report that a few days later, during a shower, Fred disappeared. We think Fred went “down the drain.’ At the dinner table, our family spent some time in lamentation and the loss of Fred was greatly, if wryly, mourned by all and especially by the young man to whom Fred was most closely attached. I do not imagine that in the vast scheme of things Fred’s demise has much in the way of cosmic significance. Still, it happened and it concerned a few people who are important to me, and trivial things like that concern a lot of people and I believe they concern the great God.

Among the great thinkers of antiquity: Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus — each in his own way — denied God’s providence for us. In an amazing breakthrough, the Stoics championed a doctrine of God’s providence in the big things, but it was the Christians who taught God’s providence in things great and small. Each raindrop falls on God’s command.

We are told that the hairs of our heads are numbered (Matthew 10:30). This divine hair tabulation must be rather easier for some of us who have fewer of them than for others of you who have entirely too many. Still, it is a marvelous doctrine. As a kid living on the buckle of the Bible Belt and wearing my hair somewhat longer than now, I can remember looking at my comb and hoping that the recount now made necessary would not strain the divine omniscience to the extent that some rather more important event might be neglected.

The classical Greeks with their four elements (fire, air, water, earth) believed that thinking was a fiery activity — at least for men. Thus the blaze of every profound thought singed a root causing a hair to fall out never to grow again. I am myself often forced to recite this poem:
Our God is good;
Our God is fair;
Some men have thoughts;
Other men have hair.

These words were kept locked in the Attic Greek until translated by Professor Yul Brunner.

In any case, Christians believe that God numbers the hairs of our heads (and presumably chests), whether few or many. Therefore, if even poor, dear Fred was counted by God, we must really count for something.

Being a Woman

On this subject more than usual a reader might wonder what possible insight I could possess. Until now, I have been quite content to recognize the mystery of feminine wilds without devoting any imaginative energy to reflection on what it must be to have them. Most likely, this restriction comes from being told as a little boy that if you kissed your own elbow you would turn into a girl. I could never think why I would want to kiss my own elbow, but I was afraid I might one day do so inadvertently. Most men have no desire to cut off their male membership and are extremely reluctant to give up their good standing in the Boys Club with all the rights, privileges, and duties thereunto appertaining.

Obviously every person, and every couple, must deal with sexual nature and sexual roles. I was reasonably certain I would never get pregnant and be involved in “the pleasing punishment that women bear” (Comedy of Errors, I.1.47). On the other hand, I could handle a number of domestic chores with considerable competence. Once our very young son, seeing a magazine picture of a woman washing dishes, asked in astonishment, “Doesn’t her have a husband?” Some family responsibilities can be shared and others not.

I always thought that being pretty was an assignment given to the female sex. Even when I looked more Byronic than now, I assumed women were supposed to be fair and men to be brave in order that joy might be unconfined (Childe Harold 3.21-2). Only a few men are strikingly and disgustingly handsome. Alcibiades comes to mind and, as you would expect, he turned out badly (cf. Plutarch’s Lives). The rest of us are just ordinary guys whose qualities, if any, must be searched for. On the distaff side very few woman are naturally ugly. According to Henry James, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was “Magnificently ugly — deliciously hideous” (Nancy Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest, p. 245). However, none of the ugly women are Presbyterian. Therefore, it never seemed to me much of a burden to expect of women a slight and entirely charming effort in the direction of beauty.

Due to an odd concatenation of events, in a short period of time I have read six books by or about women. Since I am afraid of all women — with the barely possible exception of my lady wife — I am more comfortable reading about ladies than actually talking to them. For that reason, these books put me in perfect touch with my feminine side. The evidence is a new necktie with a very discreet but definitely pink stripe. Of course Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia is no joking matter, nor is Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys. I always knew it was tough to be a boy, but now I realize that being a girl is not all peaches and cream either, no matter what the complexion might be.

Among young lovers (and old), the battle of the sexes is often wonderfully playful and life affirming, but sometimes it is terrible and death dealing. Realities of this magnitude and seriousness have a tremendous impact on the church. That sexuality is a huge and divisive issue among Presbyterians is only to be expected.

On a much smaller side of this big issue, my recent intensive reading has caused me for the first time to resent the fact that, while men and boys are variously identified, female persons (those “phantoms of delight” but what’s a word’s worth?) are relentlessly and unfairly described in terms of physical beauty or its absence. With all due modesty, I have been proud of owning an infallible eye for feminine pulchritude. However, being newly and powerfully sensitized, I am resolved to advance the cause of gender equity by never again noticing whether a woman is pretty. I think this resolution will be easier to keep in some instances than in others.