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,


A Four Letter Word

By ceaseless and careless repetition, our society teaches us many things. Few Presbyterians under 40 years of age, I suspect, can distinguish between Rocinante and Dulcinea. However, everyone knows, and has been influenced by, Don Quixote’s conviction, “When in Rome do as the Romans do” (Part II, Chapter 54). Since conforming to the behavioral norms of one’s society is usually prudential advice, such folk wisdom is passed from one generation to the next. Nevertheless, those who say, “When in Rome do as the Romans do,” might hesitate to recommend, “When among cannibals, do as the cannibals do.” Interestingly, when Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed in cannibal theaters, Puck’s famous line is rendered either as “Lord what foods these mortals be” or, alternatlvely, “Lord what fools these morsels be” (III.2.115).

Our culture also passes along the superstitions of the past. For example, a sneeze was once thought to expel demons from your head. As protection against demonic re-infestation, the phrase, “God bless you” was quickly addressed to the sneezer. Even total strangers in grocery check-out lines, who might be thought completely indifferent to my demon count, address blessings to my head. This practice is especially annoying because it interrupts my research concentration on magazine covers that Margaret would never allow me to bring into her house. Most people close their eyes in sneezing thinking thereby to see no evil. The scientific reason for closing your eyes is to prevent the sneeze’s muzzle velocity from popping your eyeballs right out of their sockets.

According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the American personality was powerfully informed by the lure of the “frontier.” In earlier times, any American who was unhappy in his present location could shout, “Westward Ho” and join a wagon train. A lot of Methodists took the suggestion to “Go Wesley, young man.” Presbyterians, on the other hand, accepted Paul’s advice to be content wherever you found yourself (Philippians 4:11). Therefore, Presbyterian ministers, clinging to the eastern seaboard, were learning Greek and pondering the mysteries of patristic theology while Methodist circuit riders were entering frontier saloons to preach for repentance and against “demon rum.”

According to Sidney Mead, America and American theology moved in a decidedly Methodist direction after the second great awakening (The Lively Experiment, p. 55). Americans now assume they are captains of their souls, masters of their fate. Indeed the Methodist conviction of individual freedom and personal responsibility is so strong that it almost inevitably involves a weakening of the Reformed conviction of God’s grace and providence. Lamentably, even some Presbyterians use the four letter word: luck. (For a small fee absolution is available to those who were thinking of a more taboo four letter word that recent movies cannot seem to do without.)

I do not like to add to the burdens of those with too much time on their hands who read these lines. Still, you should know that the next generation of Presbyterian ministers have been overheard in seminary halls during final examinations piously and piteously wishing each other “Good Luck.” Apparently they have not yet learned that Reformed theology categorically denies the ontological reality of Lady Luck, the Goddess Fortune (Sophia’s wilder sister) and the Epicurean view of radical contingency also known as “taking your chances.”

Sophisticated Calvinists recognize that the term “Good luck” indicates a defective understanding of the providence of God. True Presbyterians therefore wish each other, “Good Predestination.”

A Late-Life Trifold Pursuit

Until now I have concentrated on the first two of the so-called “Dowagers of Philosophy”, to wit, Truth and Goodness. Of late Beauty in the eye of this beholder, “in a fine frenzy rolling”, is making a belated claim.
Since my life has entered “the sere, the yellow leaf” and forfending “the winter of our discontent” and although it is undoubtedly too late to “gather ye rosebuds while you may” since “Old Time is still a-flying,” one must avoid an unnecessary situation of “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound into saucy doubts.” My solution is European travel with whomever of our adult children (and their families) is able and willing to take me along to places we mutually agree that we want to see and/or see again.

However, being the senior member of my family, “The Old Geezer” (and sometimes “Der Alter Knabe”), as I am affectionately known, I needed to establish some discipline among the young whippersnappers. Otherwise they would be all over the place. I informed them that I was always willing to consider Munich, Vienna, and London. Additionally, I might be talked into Paris, Budapest, Prague, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Milan, Florence with other destinations to be determined and allowed. Nevertheless, since geography is not the chief determinant of travel, each child must continually check the internet to see where in the world and how many of the following requirements can be met.

The first is great painting. I have long been frustrated by my poor visual memory and immensely envious of the immense learning of art historians. Still, I greatly admire the art I call great. The worlds represented in colors on a flat surface are magically beautiful. I will go a long way to stand in front of any painting by Peter Paul Rubens and delight to know who else is hanging out with him.

With great painting, you must be there to see it.

The second is great music. Never having been any kind of musician, I cannot explain why there is a song in my heart. Some kinds of music I can happily leave alone, but some–mostly Mozart–I must take. The worlds represented by flowing and disappearing sound are magically beautiful. I note that at the top of my musical scales is opera. I will go almost anywhere to join the audience for The Magic Flute, La Boheme, and Madame Butterfly. My second tier is expanding and now includes Cosi, Figaro, Aida, Fledermaus, and Don Giovanni.

With great opera, you have to be there to see and hear it.

The third is great Willy. The genius of William Shakespeare with our common language is beyond praise. As a tribute and amusement, from the beginning of my career, I have tried to smuggle in a small citation of one of Shakespeare’s lines in every sermon as a challenge for better educated congregants to identify. They have to listen on two levels. What directors and actors can do with four hundred year old words is magically beautiful. Still, I admit to you, dear reader, I prefer the comedies starting with Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With great Willy, you have to be there to see and hear those words come trippingly on the tongue because Shakespeare plays better on the stage than the page.

Not being an English literature major, I thought I could take serious instruction in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton for the pure joy unalloyed. Moreover, as the one philosophy major in the senior college level Shakespeare class, I assumed I was safe from performance expectations. However, as the only male member of the class who could speak a little French, I was ordered to play the courtship scene from Henry the Fifth opposite a scary, hot babe. Granted that was 60 years ago and Nancy may not now be as hot or scary as she was then. Still, I hope very soon to quit being embarrassed by my performance that day.

Must go now. I hear the Bard of Avon calling.