My Classical Music

My Classical Music
(submitted to National Public Radio)

According to the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the intellectual love of Mozart’s music is a liberal education on the meaning of Beauty.

For many of us, Mozart, like Shakespeare, is not of an age but for all time.  For times of joy and for times of sorrow. Conjuring only the magic of Die Zauberflote, what could be more glorious than the Queen of the Night’s aria, more sublime than Sarastro’s “Oh Isis”, more delightful than the duet between Papageno and Papagena?  Additionally, my cell phone rings out with the happy introductory notes to Zerlina’s dance from Don Giovanni.

However, humankind is also born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.  The ominous sound of our landline telephone in the predawn cold of an Iowa winter delivered the terrible news that my wife’s father had just been murdered by Somali guerrillas who crossed the border over into Ethiopia.  A rifle shot stopped a heart that had beaten for almost half a century in selfless service for some of the most hidden peoples on the African continent.

After a few moments I walked slowly to the phonograph to hear once more Mozart’s great 40th Symphony in the tragic key of G minor.  I hear in this great symphony all the depth of human tragedy clearly and compellingly expressed, but within a harmony so marvelous and mighty that the result is pure joy.  I am comforted by the hope that the dreadful events that occur in all our lives may likewise and somehow find a place in such a beautiful harmony.


What Would Ewe Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwing in the Towel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Apostle Paul and the god Poseidon

Marrying, as I did, a gorgeous redhead (there being no other kind) includes automatic induction into the League of Timid Men. This explains why I did not object when my lady wife announced that she was going to learn to ski so she could join our grown children on the snowy mountains. Actually, I was delighted to hear this decision since she had been contemplating learning to hang glide. In the lodge some months later, before pulling my chair closer to the fire to indulge my enthusiasm for the novels of Charlie Dickens, I happily waved my family away to the slopes. The skiing experience was all downhill from there.

Some months later Margaret began windsurfing. I certainly did not want to take the wind out of her sail because I found it very pleasant to carry my book and chair down to the sunny beach. As I finished each chapter I looked up and waved to the daughter of Nereus. In windsurfing it is important that the ocean waves back.

Unfortunately, the next project involved me more directly. Spending most of her childhood in the Sudan and Egypt, little Margaret loved to watch the graceful feluccas on the Nile. Therefore, in these latter days she determined to learn to sail a boat. That is when I discovered that sailing is an activity best described as hours of unrelenting boredom alternating with moments of sheer terror.

Sailing is very dangerous. For example, when Athena got hacked off because Ajax dared to lay violent hands on the prophetess Cassandra, Poseidon agreed to stir up his waters with wild whirlwinds and let dead men choke the bays and line the shores and reefs. If the whims of Poseidon don’t worry you, just study Acts 27-28 with the help of sailor and scholar James Smith’s 1866 Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul. Paul’s ship was caught in a typhoon of such violence that the mariners had to give the ship to the gale and scud before it for 14(!) days. For these two weeks Julius, Aristarchus, St. Paul and St. Luke were too scared to eat. Nearing land the ship hit a shoal, the bow stuck and the stern broke up. All 276 men had to swim for their lives. Reaching the island of Malta, Paul immediately got hisself snake bit.

My previous connection to boats was limited to trying to visualize the scene with Cleopatra (Queen of Denial) when The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne/ Burn’d on the water; the stern was beaten gold,/ Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that/ The winds were lovesick with them (“Antony and Cleopatra,” act 2, scene 2, lines 196-9).

Apparently some kinds of sailing vessels require ballast, and I discovered that my role in this endeavor was to provide it. Sounded easy. I am an expert at sitting, but I thought it was a waste of mental energy to learn silly nautical terms like “port” and “starboard” when I already knew “right” and “left.”

So came the great day of our maiden voyage. Lady Margaret, Admiral of the Ocean Seas, took her place at the tiller holding the main sheet. The intrepid Sir Ballast sat amidships with the jib and the journey began. Calm seas and gentle winds convinced Sir Ballast that a merry “yo, ho ho” would not be amiss. Just then the wind whipped up and the boat began to fly across the lake at such a tremendous speed that capsizing appeared imminent.

In this crisis my Lady Admiral calmly but firmly instructed her crew (namely me) to “trim the boat.” Now, I know how to “trim” hair or a Christmas tree, but I had no idea how to “trim” a boat. In another couple of seconds we would have been under water. Butt (if you will pardon the expression) recognizing the problem (namely me), and with the command presence only the great ones possess, new instructions were immediately issued. “Hang your rear end over the right side!”

This is the only time I can ever remember that I got to throw my weight around. In addition I was promoted to my present and permanent rank: rear admiral.

A Harvest Mooning

Numbers 15:32-36 (NIV)
While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses.

This passage from the ancient world has an important connection with a prominent object in our present world, to wit: the moon. Now a family blog such as this one should be careful about what it exposes. Therefore, at least one of the current uses of the term “moon” will remain decently covered by being uncovered here — uncovered in the sense of being roundly undescribed. Nor will we express an opinion on whether Presbyterian women named Cynthia and Diana pay a direct or indirect tribute to the goddess of the moon. We focus rather on the moon, known to poets as “Luna, heaven’s pallid nun,” and traditionally associated with lunacy and romance. These states of mind are themselves closely related, as everyone knows who has been touched by either. Romeo and Juliet were touched by both. He says, “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear.” To which she answers, “O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon” (II.2.107,109).

Only a few Christians know that the moon is also associated with a dreadful punishment. According to medieval legend, the stick-gathering man of Numbers 15 was exiled to the moon for the sin of Sabbath-breaking. In order to warn us to keep the Sabbath holy, this man was doomed to reside on the moon till the end of time. Since he did not observe Sun-day, he was given an everlasting Moon-day.

The notion of the moon man bearing a bundle of sticks is found in English manuscripts of the 12th 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.1.261-263). 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.2.143-144).

Perhaps Shelley is right that there is some world far from ours where music and moonlight and feeling are one. At least every woman knows how fascinating she becomes by moonlight. However, night-strolling Presbyterians in this world might let the moon man remind us of the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy.

In addition Christians should notice that the man in the moon was stoned outside the camp. Being outside the camp is usually neither safe nor desirable. According to the priestly ordination (Exodus 29:14), bull dung (frequently cited today but with slightly different terminology) is a sin offering to be burned outside the camp.

However, the Scripture presents another view of being outside the camp. After the people’s sin with the golden calf, 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 the writer of Hebrews (ch. 13) informs us that Jesus suffered outside the gate and challenges us, bearing abuse for him to go forth to him outside the camp. The man in the moon (with his dog and bush) might remind us that when our Lord chooses to meet us outside the camp, wherever it is, and whatever that means and whatever it costs, we must go forth to him.

My Valentine

Written by Jonathan Partee
February 2000

Dear Friends:
For the past year and a half, we have been requesting intercessory prayers for our work here in Ethiopia. We have asked for prayers for our health, our safety, and our ministry. We have requested prayers for the health and salvation of those here who do not know the Gospel message. We have petitioned for prayers for the poor and destitute who constitute such a large proportion of the population. However, for our February prayer letter, I would like to mention a prayer of mine–a thanks to God for the Valentine He gave me.
My blonde Valentine does not look big and tough, but she has a tenacity and a strength that belies her size. For successful cross-cultural adjustment, one needs a positive outlook, a sense of humor, flexibility, and fearlessness. Sara has proven herself to have a giant’s portion of each of these. Maureen, the academic dean of the Evangelical Theological College where Sara teaches, offered this evaluation of my Valentine: “Do not be fooled by her bookish exterior. Underneath that surface lies the strength of a bush woman. Whatever she needs to face, she will take it on and run it over.”
As a male, I can travel around Addis Ababa with minimal problems. However, Sara, because of her gender, golden hair, and fair skin, is hassled by scammers looking for money or the insane looking for a focus. Thankfully now she has a car, but before she often, and fearlessly, travelled by herself across the capital city using public transportation. In the past year, my Valentine has been slugged on the street, eaten raw potatoes and goat under the African sky, driven through swollen rivers, ministered to big, blue-black Uduk women, drunk milk flavored by ash (and worse), slept in a tent surrounded by wild animals, and much more. My Valentine holds the “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” showering record, having shared a shower with five cockroaches, four beetles, three toads, two spiders, and almost one chicken. (I must admit that I was the one trying to chase the chicken into the shower because I thought Sara needed some excitement in her life.)
My Valentine, while camping, has waked up to the sound of flexing sheet metal and looked out of the tent to see our Toyota Land Cruiser covered with mean, big, brown baboons. We tried to scare them away, but they were not in the least scared of us. They eventually moved on but not before chewing on the weather-stripping on the right side of the car and bending the front license plate. My Valentine hardly mentioned what could be construed as a traumatic event, although later she asked me not to put her travel bag on top of the spare tire since she had seen how many monkey butts had been on it.
On the same trip, we encountered some cute little monkeys with white muttonchops on their faces. They were playing in the trees while we were preparing our New Year’s dinner. I had walked a short distance away from the camp to drain some canned corn when Sara called out to me. I ran back to camp to find her trying to scare the monkeys off the table. They had dropped down from the trees and were preparing to eat our dinner. My guess is that few other Valentines ever had to beat monkeys off their New Year’s feast.
My Valentine has travelled more hot, sweaty, jarring Ethiopian bus miles this year than any other member of the Sudan Interior Mission, including me. She has endured strange illnesses, numerous encounters with food poisoning and abundant parasitic insects. She has travelled within spitting distance of the war-torn borders of Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan.
My Valentine lives in a one-room apartment with barely adequate bathroom and kitchen facilities. On many occasions, she has gone without water and electricity. Her drains do not work, the stove provides only lukewarm heat and her “curtains” are bed sheets and beach towels. Her shower is a basin only one inch deep surrounded by a duct taped piece of plastic–so a flooded bathroom is a common occurrence. Sara has taken all these problems in full stride–situations that would have sent many people packing for home.
Nevertheless, when our Ethiopian friends tell us about the most important witness our lives are making, I always hope they will mention my professorship at Addis Ababa University. Or perhaps Sara’s teaching at the Theological College. Maybe it could be the Bible studies we host in our apartment or our Sunday School class. However, without fail, the Ethiopians tell us that the most important witness to our sincere enjoyment and positive attitude toward the people and culture of Ethiopia is Sara’s smile.
My Valentine is married to a guy who, right out of university, headed off with her to the Horn of Africa. He is 31 years old, earns less that $4,500 a year, has no house, no 401 (k), and only a 15-year old, rusty Honda to call his own. Sara is his wonder and his blessing.
“Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the reward she has earned and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” Proverbs 31: 29-31
Happy Valentine’s Day, Sara
And all my Love

Men Were Deceivers Ever

Not in my family, of course, but many men are not trustworthy. According to David M. Buss, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating (1994), intelligent women have a complex battery of tests designed to determine male commitment.

Old Willy Shakespeare warned the fair sex about men a long time ago:

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.

However, even those male types of us, who are both handsome and reliable, like to think we are just a little bit dangerous. That is why we can protect our womenfolk, and we would like to suppose they are just a little bit grateful. Our being dangerous and their being grateful makes for a fine counterpoise. We men know exactly how our women can best express their gratitude, but too many slightly dangerous men are also slightly stupid.

We do not want our women to be afraid of us. We are much better off if she loves us. Still, we do not want to be taken for granted. “Happy Wife/Happy Life,” has no masculine parallel. The closest is “Happy Hubby/Gets Chubby.” The fact is the women in my family subscribe to the axiom that “The Surprised Brain is the Happy Brain.”

I myself hate surprises. They catch me unprepared, as is their purpose, and I always get embarrassed and then annoyed. Nevertheless, my wife loved surprises. I think they made her feel special, so I had to learn how to produce them, and I thought I was pretty good at it. I now suspect that my son, Jonathan, is better than I ever was and I both appreciate and resent having children (and grandchildren) so much cleverer than I am.

For their twentieth wedding anniversary Jonathan decided to take Sara and their three girls to New York City to an expensive hotel near Central Park, with plans to eat at fancy restaurants, play in the park, spend a day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and attend the Broadway production of Phantom of the Opera. Of all that I am not jealous because I could have planned every item.

The problem is that it would never have occurred to me to coach my youngest to let slip that the family was going to celebrate the twentieth wedding anniversary in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The other two children were taught to behave as if their sister had revealed the secret so their mother would have to pretend that she had not heard their destination. Sara was not surprised when the family packed beach towels and swimsuits, but she did wonder why they were also supposed to pack dress-up clothes. Jonathan, of course, assured her there was an opera house in Erie.

When everybody got in the car, arrived the moment I most envy. Jonathan asked Sara to program the GPS for the hotel in Erie and off to the north they went. Some time later the car turned east and, in typical wifely fashion, Sara happily pointed out that her husband was going the wrong way. Then she saw four triumphant smiles, and said,