The Limits of Decency

It is all very well for the Bible to command us in one place to be urgent (2 Timothy 4:2) and in another to do all things decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40).  The problem is the Bible does not tell us which commandment applies to which situation.  Thus, some Christians — like the Methodists — are regularly more urgent than decent and some — like the Presbyterians — are regularly more decent than urgent.

This issue came home to me some years ago in the following situation.  I consider myself a first-rate handy person.  (Actually, I think of myself as a handyman, but the other day when my son referred to the “postperson” I realized I would have to change my language.)  If things have to be done right (like wallpaper), then of course Margaret, my wife, would do them, but rough jobs of plumbing, electrical wiring and carpentry are for me.  I will not admit that there is anything that I cannot do if I have the proper tools.

I was not always so skillful.  The first time Margaret decided that our roof needed to be re-shingled, I happily agreed to call someone to do it.  However, she said we could not afford to hire someone and she would do the job herself if I did not have time.  Well, that was the purest blackmail.

Doubtless, a modern liberated male would simply smile and hand her the nails, but those of us who are gentlemen of the old school were taught to “thank God for little girls” who are “made of sugar and spice and everything nice.”  Boys, and presumably men, on the other hand, are “made of snails and puppy dog tails.”  Much as I might wish otherwise, I knew it would be impossible to read a book in peace and with profit while my lady wife was hammering away on the roof over my head.  So, with as much ill grace as I could muster, I borrowed a 60-foot ladder and started to learn to shingle, uttering curses in liturgical Latin as we were taught to do in seminary.

Things went well for a while but there was one part of the roof which sloped sharply away from the ladder no matter where I placed it.  I solved that problem by parking the car in the back yard, attaching a long rope to the door frame, draping the rope all the way over the roof, and tying it around my waist.  Then I would run up the slope and nail a shingle in place before I slid down again.  I have always prided myself on my personal gravity.  For days, our friendly neighbors gathered in the yard to watch this process (or as we native Southerners say, to hoot and to holler).  Their helpful comments I will not repeat.

However, I was completely nonplussed when I reached a place where I could not use my rope trick and the ladder would not reach.  So I walked around town until I saw some professional roofers and asked them how to proceed beyond the ladder.  They told me to nail a two-by-four to the roof and stand on it.  So I went home, extended the ladder as far as it would go, reached off and nailed a two-by-four to the roof and climbed onto it.  I later discovered that the roofers assumed I would have enough sense to nail the two-by-four into the studs of the attic, but they did not tell me to do that and I didn’t .  I anchored by 16-foot two-by-four into one-half inch of rotten wood shingle.  Thus, as soon as I put my weight on the two-by-four it came loose and rolled off the roof.  I followed it immediately and slid down the roof coming to rest at the edge of the gutter and under the ladder with my legs stuck through the rungs.  I could not move the ladder at all because I would then fall to the ground.

Thinking with the lightning speed and accuracy that is the hallmark of a seminary professor, I realized that if Margaret would hold the ladder at the bottom I could extricate myself from it without grave bodily injury.  Thus perched precariously on the edge of the roof, I calmly asked one of the children to please call their mother.  Apparently my request was a little bit too calmly delivered because they went into the house, returned in a few minutes, and informed me, “She said to tell you she is busy.”

At that point I decided to jettison 400 years of Presbyterian, decently-and-in-order tradition, and made my request with an urgency that would not have embarrassed a shouting Methodist.

Flora and Fawning

Being myself a progressive liberal, I turned immediately to the Revised Standard Version of the Bible as soon as it became available in 1946.  Hide-bound conservatives in those days called it the Reversed Virgin because the translation of Isaiah 7:14 (“Behold, a young woman shall conceive”) differed from the hallowed orthodoxy of the King James Version.  Nevertheless, and to my surprise, I find that I quote Ephesians 4:32 to myself from the King James Version:  “Be ye kind one to another.”  Kindness is supposed to be one of the defining characteristics of God’s chosen ones (Colossians 3:12).

The more I read around in the great novels of Charles Dickens the greater is my delight.  The more I read about the great man himself the greater is my sorrow.  Like most of us, Dickens could be kind, but he was also very cruel.  Even in my most generous judgment there is a distressing gap between the life and work of Dickens.  I occasionally wonder what I would have done if I had been his pastor and therefore responsible for him and to him.

The most obvious issue pertains to his wife of 22 years (and the mother of his 10 children).  Rich and famous at age 46, Dickens put Catherine aside and took up with Ellen Ternan, an 18 year old actress.  This sordid little affair is all too human and all too common.  It is naturally (if not morally) explained in David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire:  Strategies of Human Mating.

More interesting and challenging is the uncommon Dickens of a problem concerning Maria Beadnell.  Just into his twenties Charles Dickens fell wildly in love with a girl named Maria.  Her name was like the sound of music.  It was another West Side Story.  Seldom has a young swain combined a nature so passionate and so articulate.  Dickens star-crossed, pain-filled, and doomed love for Maria Beadnell was later and forever spread before the world in his thinly disguised autobiography.  David Copperfield (DC) and Charles Dickens (CD) – we all get it.

In Dora Spenlow, Dickens painted a portrait of Maria Beadnell as every young boy’s adorable, unsuitable, and forever lost first love.  Sadly, Charles Dickens, unlike David Copperfield, never found his Agnes Wickfield, so true, so beautiful, so good, “the better angel of my life” (Chapter 60).  Maria’s parents judged young Charles too poor in purse and prospect to be considered as a serious suitor for their daughter’s hand.  Their budding relation was broken off and Maria returned all Charles’ letters.  But not before making copies – presumably for the nostalgic feminine pleasure of an occasional hop around on a young man’s bleeding heart.

During the ensuing years, Dickens became rock-star famous, and Maria, now married and motherly, got back in touch with her old admirer, rekindling his almost inexpressible delight.  In the first blush of his enthusiasm to meet her again, Charlie forgot that, while he would be looking with essentially the same eyes, the woman he would see was twenty years different.  Her youthful enchantment had entirely disappeared.  To his dismay and disgust, Dickens found Maria Beadnell to be fat, forty, flighty, and finally foolish.  He wanted nothing to do with her.  And some years later rejected her request for help when her husband’s business failed.

Except for profound theological conviction, nothing seems to be beyond Dickens’ ability to describe.  He skewers poor Maria on a spit and roasts her to a turn both rare and well done.  The boy-lover, David Copperfield, now grown up appears as Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit.  Maria Beadnell reappears as Flora Finching.  The description could hardly be more glorious as literature, and it could hardly be more brutal as reality.  Even Flora’s noble characteristics just make her silly ones the more devastating.  Dickens could never be charged with fawning over Flora.

Most of us rightly oppose the gratuitous infliction of grief on any person.  Nevertheless, I think I would advise my parishioner, Charles Dickens, “Life is short, but art is long.  Your depictions of Flora and Dora are among the most precious treasures of English literature.  That they refer to the same, living woman will soon be covered by the scab of history.”

“And, for the dear old times’ sake, Charlie, be ye kind.  Send her the money she needs.”

A Belated Father’s Day Reflection

To this point in history, little attention has been devoted to masculinist, or more precisely – fatherist, biblical exegesis.  When this important field is better recognized, I will offer the following father’s perspective on Luke 1:41:  “When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.”  Obviously, as is the way with women, Elizabeth related this information to Mary who passed it on to Dr. Luke, who wrote it down.  Mary and Elizabeth interpreted the event as a miraculous acknowledgement of the Messiah.

Having something alive and kicking inside your body must be an extremely weird experience which, I dare say, most men have never had the slightest desire to share.  Women, or at least some women, think their unborn child doing trampoline exercises is not weird but wonderful.  When my wife was pregnant she was always waddling up to request that I “feel the baby” leaping around.

In expecting our third child I was quite relaxed because by then I had taught Margaret all I knew about how to give birth.  When we got to the hospital, the physician asked me if I wanted to come into the delivery room.  I told him, “Nothing doing” because I had a book I wanted to read.  Besides, I had successfully completed my part of this process some months before.  However, he insisted that since I was present at the conception I should also be present at the delivery.  As a result I put on a white coat, a bandit’s mask, and informed the doctor that at the first opportunity I planned to faint dead away.  He said I was not allowed to faint because some student nurses were attending who had never observed the father in the delivery room.  I gave permission for them to look all they wanted, but to avoid stepping on me since I would be stretched out on the floor.

In the delivery room I understood why the doctor had insisted on my presence.  I was given the most important part of the entire medical procedure.  My task was to keep a cold, wet cloth on the mother’s brow.  This was not easy to do since Margaret and the doctor were animatedly discussing a movie they had both seen.  After a few minutes, and while I was concentrating mightily on my difficult assignment, the doctor said in a firm voice, “Push, Mother.”  I leave it to you to judge the likelihood that I so far forgot myself as to abandon my task, jump up, wave my arm, and shout “Push, Mother!”  Margaret says it is very hard to push and laugh at the same time.

As soon as our son was born, my wife pointed out that in Africa where she was born the umbilical cord was bitten in two.  Her physician demurred.  I think he had bad teeth.  Nevertheless, it was abundantly clear that Jonathan was my true son since his very first act in this world was to urinate on the doctor, incidentally decreasing his birth weight by about two pounds.  Since I knew the amount of the bill I would shortly receive from that physician, I had the strongest urge to perform the same action myself.

At this point the doctor helped Margaret off the delivery table, put my baby on his wet arm, and took Margaret with his dry arm.  I grabbed her other arm and with six student nurses trailing along we walked down the corridor to her room.

Now here is the most amazing part of my nativity story.  Somewhere behind us in that hospital was the entire University of Texas Longhorn Marching Band in parade performance.  I walked very proud and straight.  The second miracle is that I seemed to be the only one in our group who could hear the drum rolls celebrating my outstanding accomplishment.

There are those who say the hen delivers and the rooster crows, but being a father is clearly a job for a real man.  It is always nice to have mothers nearby when the baby is born, but I am sure Zechariah and Joseph had great stories to tell and it is a crying shame that nobody bothered to record them.

Telling the Tooth

Even though she and her husband lived in a single-room studio apartment during their two years of mission service in Ethiopia, our daughter-in-law found it necessary, and quite against her inclination, to employ domestic help. Without the laborsaving devices for cooking, cleaning and washing that American women take for granted, Sara had no other option if she wanted to continue to teach at the seminary in Addis Ababa. Since Martha, the maid, spoke no English, Sara had to learn basic Amharic very quickly. Soon she and Martha had become fast friends and were comparing cultural differences. (Martha, by the way, is the godmother of my granddaughter, Rebecca, who – I’m sure you will be interested to know – was the world’s cutest, smartest, happiest baby and is now the world’s most beautiful, smartest, and happiest college student.)

After a strong friendship was forged, Martha explained to Sara that house maids in Ethiopia often assume that one of the perquisites of working for a foreigner is sharing certain possessions. This sharing includes their employer’s toothbrush. Later in that week at dinner with long-term missionaries Sara was asked about the cultural surprises she had encountered. As she concluded the toothbrush story, Sara noticed a horrified expression on the face of her hostess. The veteran lady missionary had wondered for years why her toothbrush seemed to wear out so much faster in Ethiopia. When I was a kid we went to the movies every Saturday afternoon to watch the cowboy dentist known as Hopalong Cavity. Not only could he sing, he always told the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth.

In my next life I am coming back as a sociologist. I admire psychologists very much but, while individuals are wonderfully amusing to observe, they are too various to provide useful conclusions for long-term reflection. For example, on some enchanted evening a guy is minding his own business and gazing idly across a crowded room. Suddenly his heart is captivated, his breath is taken away, and his brain is fried thin and crispy. Who can understand the way of an eagle in the sky, a serpent on a rock, or a man with a maid (Proverbs 30:19)?

However, it would be nice to understand the actions of groups of people, especially behaviors of acceptance and rejection that flow from springs of conviction running deeper than logic. For years I thought Luther’s observation at Marburg in 1529 that the Zwinglians were “of a different spirit” was only an expression of Brother Martin’s theological spleen. I now believe it is a profound insight. Human beings harbor powerful instincts that are beyond the reach of reason and in some cases beyond the resolution of compromise. The only successful response to great differences seems to be putting great distances between the contending parties. I hope the pilgrim band, known as the Presbyterian Church (USA), is not approaching a fork in the Glory Road where their paths must separate.

After his experiments with “all things in common” (Republic V, 462c), Plato confessed that the distinction between “mine” and “thine” was fixed so deeply in the human psyche that it could not be eliminated. At some point in every life the conviction obtains, “This belongs to me.” Likewise, the mysterious transmogrification of personal identity into social sodality produces the assertion, “That belongs to us.” My self and my group are obvious realities. On the other hand, altruism is not an obvious truism.

When I entered the Presbyterian ministry, the congregational goal was to spend only half the budget locally – calculating the minister’s salary as a local expense. The other half was supposed to go to national and international outreach. The last figures I saw indicated that the average American congregation today spends 85% of its budget on identifiably first person singular and first person plural causes.

As a sociologist my first research project after metempsychosis will concern the perceived (or suspected) gap between two groups in the Presbyterian Church, the conservative proponents of evangelism and the liberal proponents of social action. I will begin by analyzing seminary professors of mission in relation to seminary professors of ethics. I will not study their books and lectures because in my next life I will realize much sooner just how easy it is to put your mouth where your heart is NOT. Rather, I will observe their faith and behavior. In other words, where they put their own blood, sweat, tears, prayers, and money. I would like to know how much and what kind of evangelism is promoted by ethics professors and how much and what kind of social action is effected by mission professors.

I remember the excitement in our family so many years ago when her sharp-eyed grandmother spotted Rebecca’s first two teeth breaking through. Among the Buna people in Ethiopia, telling the tooth is a matter of life or death. A baby is allowed to live if the lower teeth appear first. If the upper teeth come in first, she is put to death. On the conviction that Our Lord loves all the little children of the world, I will ask the two sets of professors what, if anything, American Presbyterians should do about these African babies.

Outside the Camp with the Man in the Moon

During the time that the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.  Those who had caught him in the act brought him to Moses and Aaron and all the community, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clearly known what was to be done with him.  The Lord said to Moses, “The man must be put to death; he must be stoned by all the community outside the camp.”  So they took him outside the camp and all stoned him to death, as he Lord had commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-6)

 Take for a prelude Dvorak’s lovely “Song to the Moon” to remind you that this passage from the ancient world has a connection to an important object in your current world, to wit., the moon.  I could also have chosen “Moon River” by Aliquippa’s Henry Mancini with its local reference to the head of the Ohio.  The moon is a rich source of sensual impressions and I wish we had time to get moon thoughts from each person here present.  When I asked my dearest–and, as it turns out, most vulgar–friends to tell me their first thought on hearing the word “moon”, some of the less well-sheltered among you can probably imagine what I heard and with accompanying gestures and postures.

I had rather expected “moon” to be associated with such things as romance and lunacy.  More likely one thing rather than two.

Surely every lord has said to his lady:  “‘l’ll come to thee by moonlight though hell should bar the way” (Alfred Noyes).    And

“Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear.”  To which she answers, “Oh swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon.” (Romeo and Juliet, II. 2. 107, 109)

Reminders of the moon goddesses walk among us as Diana and Cynthia.

All of this leads to the nursery rime:

The man in the moon/Came down too soon/And asked thy way to Norwich.     He went by the south/And burnt his mouth/ While supping hot pease porridge.

According to medieval legend (see S. Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, chapter 9), for the sin of Sabbath-breaking, the man in Numbers 15 with the gathered sticks on his back was exiled to the moon beyond the reach of earth and doomed to reside there as a warning till the end of time.  Since he did not observe Sunday, he was given an everlasting Moon-Day.  The notion of the man in the moon bearing a bundle of sticks is found in English manuscripts of the twelfth century and by Shakespeare’s time the man in the moon had acquired a dog and a bush. The mechanic who acts as Moonshine in A Midsummer Night’s Dream enters with the announcement, “All I have to say is to tell you that the lantern is the moon, I the man in the moon, this thorn-bush my thorn-bush, and this dog my dog” (V. 1. 261-3). When Stephano tells Caliban that he is the man in the moon and has dropped from heaven, Caliban exclaims, “I have seen you…and your dog and your bush” (The Tempest, II. 2. 143-4).

And now with the fond hope that your interest/imagination/irritation is engaged, let me offer a two-part conclusion–one from the Old and one from the New Testament.

First, when next you are out walking at night and you say to yourself, “I see the moon and the moon sees me”, I would like you to remember that the man in the moon was stoned outside the camp  I would also like you to remember that priestly ordination in the Old Testament (Exodus 29:14) required the flesh of the bull and its skin and its dung–because it is a sin offering–to be burned outside the camp.  Thus, in a general way, it is neither safe nor desirable to be outside the camp.

Second, comes a sharp reversal.  After the people’s sin with the golden calf, in order to make atonement, Moses took the tent of meeting and pitched it outside the camp.  “And every one who sought the Lord would go to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7).  Surely it is with this passage in mind that the writer of Hebrews (Chapter 13) informs us that Jesus our Lord suffered outside the gate and challenges us, bearing abuse for him, to go forth to him outside the camp.

I suggest this application.  A lot of us Christians a lot of the time live and work very comfortably within the camp.  We have fair control of a lot of things.   However, we do well to remember that we do not control Him. And when He chooses to meet us outside the camp, wherever that is, and whatever it means, and whatever it costs, we must go forth to Him.

Romancing Sophia

To a flat-lander who has lived in the Mississippi Delta and on the Great Plains, Pittsburgh is a big challenge because of all the hills.  This fact has led me to recognize that it is a serious mistake for a man to marry chiefly for beauty and brains.  Brawn ought to be a major consideration.  I now think the ideal woman is at least 6 feet tall, weighs about 290 and bench presses 400 pounds.

I came to this conclusion some years ago while working all alone on my retaining wall.  We lived on a hill and my wife, Margaret, decided it would be nice to have a more level backyard.  Implementation of this uxorial preference required that I build an 8-foot retaining wall of large stones and railroad ties.  Also, the only way to get the 10 truckloads (40 tons) of new soil around the house was by a one-man (me) wheelbarrow.  Unfortunately, I am descended from the architect of the Jericho wall and my wall has a tendency to fall down.

The following summer when I was rebuilding my wall, I smashed my finger between a fast-moving stone (on the one hand) and a stationary rock (on the other hand).  A few days later my fingernail turned a spectacular black and blue and became loose in its socket.

Now, at our house I slice all the family onions because they make Margaret cry.  So one evening I poured the sliced onions into the meatloaf bowl and decided to be even more helpful by mixing the ingredients.  I was happily and vigorously squeezing away in the glop when my fingernail came off and got lost.  Honestly, I did try to find that fingernail, but it was too well hidden among the onions.

This situation led to four important questions.  First, does a male fingernail have nutritive value?  Second, what are the chances of serving one’s wife the piece containing the nail?  Third, would it be fair for her to get mad at me if I did?  Fourth, was the Lord telling me that I should preach a sermon on fingernails?

After checking my Bible concordance for fingers and fingernails, I decided to focus on the beautiful captive slave woman who had to pare her nails.  Deuteronomy 21:10-14 reads (in part), “When you go forth to war against your enemies . . . and see among the captives a beautiful woman . . . and would take her for yourself as wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and pare her nails.”

This text is intriguing for at least three reasons.  First, so far as I know, no one has ever preached on it.  Second, so far as I know, no one knows exactly how it applies today.  Third, the only interpretation of the passage I know is quite erroneous by modern standards.  This text was once understood to address the relationship between divine wisdom revealed in Scripture (divinity) and other types of wisdom (the humanities).  The Greek word for wisdom is sophia, and wisdom about earthly things (as opposed to heavenly things) was regarded as a beautiful woman whom Christians found attractive and desired to possess.  This passage was once thought to give permission to love Sophia on the condition that some of her former glories (hair and nails) were put aside and what remained served to please her husband.

Obviously, this account is both fictional and objectionable.  However, American Presbyterian Christians might need to reassert the important balance between the receptive heart and the active mind.  In anti-intellectual America, even Presbyterians are too often tempted to ignore the relation between learning and piety, because it is easier to respond to hot rhetoric than to follow cool reflection.  We do well to remember that when Jesus in Mark 12:30 quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, he added “with all your mind.”  Thus, we have it on no less authority than our Lord himself that we are to worship God with the mind.  Of course, reflection alone will not rebuild the unity of our Reformed theological consensus.  At present, we are probably too sharply divided in our basic convictions to expect agreement.  However, if just now in our church’s history we must argue about the content of theology, we might at least be able to discuss amicably the method of being humanity and doing divinity.  Maybe we could even get something “nailed” down.

Christian Witness and Projectile Vomiting

The sophisticated elegance of Plato’s reflections on the dualism of body and soul and the resulting view of the immortality of soul continue to make a powerful impact on Christian theology.  However, Plato thinks on a much higher level than I do.  I just try to keep body and soul together.

For example, some years ago while visiting my son Jonathan in Ethiopia, my soul watched with detached bemusement as my body reacted with delayed violence to food poisoning one day and with immediate violence to food rejection a few days later.  By this personal effect my missionary son was powerfully reminded of the social wretchedness I had once caused at his elementary school.

Our family had just moved to Pittsburgh in 1978 and on the first day of school Jonathan wandered into his new classroom and took a vacant seat.  Unfortunately, he had chosen a desk on what became the “girls’ side” which is a boy-trauma not easily cured.  To compound this nearly fatal injury, the teacher discovered that our family had spent the summer of 1969 in Ethiopia where Jonathan had taken his first step.  So, in an effort to broaden the horizons of the students, my wife and I were invited to give a presentation to the fifth grade.

From this point on the story belongs to Jonathan:  “My parents showed up at my school wearing traditional Ethiopian clothes, and I realized that sitting on the “girls’ side” of the room was merely a flesh wound.  Things could, and were going to, get a lot worse.  Mom and Dad set up a slide projector and proceeded to show us the rich history, fertile farmland, interesting people and wild animals of Ethiopia accompanied by African music.  However, it is impossible to describe Ethiopia fully without some attention to the tremendous needs one sees on a daily basis.  for every student in my classroom, it was an education in itself to see pictures of people suffering from poverty, hunger, and a host of horrible diseases like polio and elephantiasis.

“As a result of a particularly graphic picture of a leper my grandfather was taking care of, one of my classmates (later the star running back on our high school football team) heaved his breakfast producing a chunky waterfall of vomit, which, plopping on the floor was immediately accompanied by the frantic metallic scraping of nearby desks scooting out of range.

“The slide show was stopped, the custodian was called, and that mysterious, noxious chemical was sprinkled around that somehow is able to smell twice as strong and twice as bad as the vomit alone.  I don’t know why janitors do this since it put us kids right on the edge.  Perhaps it is because there is nothing like a classroom of queasy 11-year-olds to guarantee janitorial job security.

“Anyway, with the acrid smell lingering in our mouths and nostrils and an uneasiness in our bellies, the slide show resumed.  My newly sensitized father attempted to skip quickly over any of the too-realistic, remaining slides.  Upon observing one, he would shout “Whoa,” thereby forcing us to sit up and fully absorb the picture as he frantically stabbed the advance button.  For some time thereafter, I was known as “the new kid whose parents made David barf.”  Fortunately, it was a cumbersome nickname not easily shouted across a playground so it didn’t stick.

“That vomiting incident 20 years ago first seared the pain of Africa into my heart and started me on the road back to Ethiopia where we have lived for the last two years.  I believe that our Lord is not pleased when his Presbyterians scoot their desks away from the world’s pain.  Terribly embarrassed at the time, I am now extremely grateful for that lesson.  

In addition, I now realize that my parents were years ahead of their time, being pioneers in the field of multimedia.  Their slide show incorporated not only unforgettable sights and sounds but also smells.”

Riding Away on an Old Nag

      Like everybody’s else and even more than Hamlet’s, our “time is out of joint.  O cursed spite” (I. 5. 187).  However, for me, a lone time to read, write, and think has always been a regularly-sought condition.  “Alone, alone, all, all alone,/ Alone on a wide wide sea!/ And never a saint took pity on/ My soul in agony.”  Nevertheless

                    When to the sessions of sweet silent thought

                    I summon up remembrance of things past,

                    I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,

                    And with old woes new wail my dear times waste.  Sonnet 30

         Remembrance of things past is a strange and wondrous gift, which sometimes includes vivid memories of events in which we did not actually participate.  Family stories can be told so often that we become convinced that we were present for them.  Contrariwise, there are things past–a long time past–that we cannot forget.

      To my surprise (and bemused disquiet), I find a promise made to myself in 1954 continues to nag me.  Not being one of their majors, I only enrolled in college literature courses for which I knew I would enjoy studying in the company of one expert and a bunch of neophytes, like me.  This led to a whilom brush-by of Edmund Spenser’s THE FAERIE QUEENE on the way to a fine semester with Willy Shakespeare.

     Sadly, for my little piece of mind, the professor offered the snarky remarky that almost nobody ever read beyond Books One and Two of the FAERIE QUEENE.  Right then I promised myself I would not remain in the “Almost  Nobody” category.  I have latterly learned that the bloodshot ayes who affirm a complete reading of the FQ, known as “The Heroes of the Faerie Queene” are second only to “The Conquerors of Arcadia” in the elitism of their status and the paucity of their numbers.

     Eftsoons, having failed so often over the last seven decades to redeem my promise and slinking away “with ruffled rayments, and fayre blubbered face,” I recognized that I would need disciplinary help.  And, indeed, I have one friend who bravely agreed to join me and the Redcrosse Knight, “pricking on the plaine,/ Ycladd in mightie armes and silver shielde.”

     Memory is a funny thing and helpfully malleable.  I had remembered that the structure of THE  FAERIE QUEENE made its reading a pane in the buttress.  I had not remembered that it is, one of if not also, the longest poem in the English language, likely to detonate a bomb in Gilead. Anyone who really wants to read the Spenserian stanza’s   eight iambic pentameter lines with the final alexandrine might better turn to CHILDE HAROLD’S PILGRIMAGE, the Byronic knight  who claims: 

                           I have not loved the world, nor the world me;

                           I have not flatter”d its rank breath, nor bow’d

                           To its idolatries a patient knee, 

                           Nor coin’d my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud

                           In worship of an echo[.]  

        I had sort of remembered I had sort of promised in 1954 to read ALL of the FQ, but on more careful scrutinization of my memory, I realized that I could only have promised to read the first four books.  Since the parts of THE FAERIE QUEENE that are not completely unreadable are incredibly dull, it seems a perfect project for this covi-tidian time when

                             The race of life becomes a hopeless flight    

                             To those that walk in darkness:  on the sea, 

                             The boldest steer but where their ports invite, 

                             But there are wanderers o’er Eternity

                             Whose bark drives on and on, and anchored n’er shall be.

Ardor vs. Order

As a lifelong student of muliebrity, I have learned that Earth has few intellectual delights to compare with the satisfaction of embarrassing the woman you love.  Although I. Kant say it out loud, an axiom of both pure and practical reason holds that a woman will never get angry at you if you are trying to express your devotion to her.

As a young pastor, I started a war on flowers in the church sanctuary because I thought the money spent on flowers should be given to the poor.  A saintly woman reminded me with considerable firmness that beauty was part of God’s creation, and I had no right to deny the expression of someone’s gift for flower arranging, especially in the house of God.  I quickly called off my war of the roses.  Some time later and after only a few years of marriage, I realized that my very own lady actually preferred flowers on her birthday rather than the two football tickets I had been giving her.

Now you need to fast-forward with me through 40 years to the time when Margaret came back from a two-day conference in Chicago.  On her return, I was standing at the bottom of a ramp at Greater Pittsburgh Airport holding above my head a large sign which read “Welcome Home, Margaret” and a huge presentation bouquet of cut flowers.  I knew I looked absolutely ridiculous, and I fervently hoped no one in the large crowd recognized me.  I could tell they were wondering who in the world that besotted old geezer was meeting.

When Margaret came bounding out of the plane and saw me and the sign and the flowers and hundreds of people grinning up at her, she blushed a fiery red and took an instinctive step back toward the plane.  However, in a split second she realized that in that tiny move she had perfectly identified herself for everybody in the concourse.  As she walked on down the ramp, I thought, “Oh boy, I have really messed up now,” but she took the flowers, with the grace only women can manage, and said, “That was nice.  Message received.  I may keep you around a while longer.”

Flowers to your wife or a contribution to a worthy charity?  The fact is we Presbyterians are better at “order” than we are at “ardor.”  We find it easier to express careful, economic accountability than wild, heartfelt devotion.  However, I suspect there are times, even for Calvinists traveling through life, when we had rather receive a buss on the cheek than a check on the bus.  Still, the anointing at Bethany is especially hard for us to interpret.

The event is reported by all four Gospels (Mark 14, Matthew 26, Luke 7, John 12) with a bewildering variety of details.  For example, Mark and Matthew say the ointment was poured on Jesus’ head; Luke and John say the ointment was poured on Jesus’ feet.  Still, on the surface at least, the major point seems to be that Jesus receives a lavish gift which is the equivalent of a full year’s wages.  When this acceptance is challenged by the disciples, led (in John) by Judas, to the effect that the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus defends the action by going on the attack.

Predictably, this passage made John Calvin quite uncomfortable.  He declares that the anointing appears very much a matter of luxury and unnecessary indulgence, and insists that while some particular, and even silly, acts may please the great God, they should not properly be taken as an example to follow, but represent a clear exception to normal Christian behavior.  I get the distinct impression that if Jesus Christ himself had not given his approval to the anointing at Bethany, then John Calvin, and maybe most Presbyterians, would join Judas in condemning it.

The proper use of money is, I believe, the single most difficult issue confronting the ordinary Christian in America.  Jesus talked a lot about money, including the statement that where your money is there your heart is also (Matthew 6:21).  I took that statement very seriously.  Therefore, when I was a pastor I always preached four (!) stewardship sermons in November.  These sermons wonderfully unified each of the congregations I served.  They made everybody mad.  When I was a child I assumed “We were taking up a collection for the church.”  By the time I became a pastor I knew “We were making an offering to Almighty God.”

Still I have often wondered if the money I spent on that poster board and those flowers was proper stewardship.  Clearly, Christian obedience requires careful use of the resources which God has entrusted to our care.  We must avoid the self-indulgent luxuriousness that destroys character and denies our responsibility to and for God’s world.

At the same time I believe that the anointing at Bethany is a reminder to overly cautious people that it is also appropriate to express our love and devotion to God and to each other with beautiful things.  After all, none other than our Lord Jesus Christ himself said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her/  She has done a beautiful thing to me.  And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Precious Blood

Blood everywhere!

            So The DaVinci Code argues in exciting and so Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ demonstrates in excruciating detail.  In the hot flash of a mini-pause, the issue of blood becomes a fascinating subject.  The Israelites regarded blood with holy awe because they understood blood to be the life of the flesh.  Under the old covenant, the offering of blood was central to the sacrificial system.  The shed blood of animals made atonement for sins by divine appointment. To offer blood was to offer life – a mystery so great that the chosen people were strictly prohibited from drinking blood.  Hebrew life was never a bowl of gravies.

            When I was growing up on the buckle of the Bible belt, you were often asked if you had been washed in the blood of the lamb.  Today my dentist does not want to be touched by blood, much less washed.  He dons goggles for his eyes, a mask for his face, and rubber gloves for his hands.  Dante envisions the horror of violent men immersed to their eyelashes in a boiling river of blood with fierce centaurs patrolling the banks (Canto 12).  Only a few years ago, people did not worry much about blood.  In my football days, facemask penalties were never called, chiefly because football helmets did not have facemasks.  Getting hit in the face was a common occurrence.  I remember sadly the night I was kicked in the face, accompanied by an impressive gush of blood.  To my disgust, I stopped bleeding before I got to the sidelines, thereby losing all hope of impressing our gorgeous cheerleaders with how tough I was.  As you would expect, they continued their long term practice of ignoring me completely.

            Since human beings are creatures of flesh and blood (Galatians 1:16), we live happily as long as both components are healthy.  Early in life, one is mostly evaluated by the flesh, which is why some of us wear tight skirts.  In those days, good looks is better than good blood.  Later in life, one is mostly evaluated by the blood.  Good blood is better than good looks.

            The Bible never stops bleeding because it is a bloody book.  “The blood of Christ” is a phrase used more frequently than either “the death of Christ” or “the cross of Christ.”  For example, we are told there is no life in us unless we drink the blood of the Son of Man (John 6:53).  “In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1:7-8).

            The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.  Concerning the issue of blood, there is a considerable flow among us.  On our left side, a former moderator of the Presbyterian Church when asked, “What do you make of the biblical phrase, ‘the blood of Christ’?” answered, “As little as possible.”  The right side makes as much as possible, singing with gusto:  “There is a fountain filled with blood/ Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;/ And sinners plunged beneath that flood/ Lose all their guilty stains [.]”  Whichever hand you wash, the smell of blood continues to rise from the pages of the Bible and all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten that fact.

            Hebrews declares, “Apart from the shedding of blood there is NO forgiveness of sins” (9:22).  Eusebius claims God alone knows who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, but I knew a twinkle-eyed lady who insisted that the Greek style is so elegant that Hebrews could only have been written by a woman – probably Priscilla.  If so, Priscilla points out that the earthly high priest enters the Holy of Holies every year with blood NOT his own (9:25) but Christ entered once for all AND with his own blood (9:12).  Since the Biblical connection among blood, sin, atonement, sacrifice, and covenant is so bloody obvious, no one with any theological sophistication can possibly avoid some kind of bloody conclusion.  In the middle of his famous, twenty page plus paragraph (in The Bear), America’s greatest novelist (William Faulkner, of course) observed the profound truth that the human race learns nothing except through suffering and remembers nothing except when underlined in blood.

            Putting aside for the moment my “too, too solid flesh,” the next time our presbytery conducts a theological examination, I plan to ask the candidate to explain the meaning of the “precious blood of Christ” (I Peter 1:18-9).  According to my diagnosis, the health of the Presbyterian Church (USA) requires of our leadership a more accurate theological blood test.  Otherwise, it will be too late for this part of the body of Christ to benefit from a transfusion.  A bloodless church possesses only esprit de corpse.