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?”


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