Thy Sweet Love

University education is a relatively new and limited opportunity in Ethiopian society with punctuality a serious problem.  Professors found it impossible to convince students to appear for class on time.  Some teachers requested late arrivals to enter quietly and sit at the back of the room, others locked the door, all kinds of threats were issued but all were ignored.  For 50 years tardy scholars continued to knock on the door and interrupt the class.

My son, Jonathan, decided this practice must stop, so each day he warned his physics class at the University of Addis Ababa that after 14 days any student arriving past the appointed hour would be required to stand in front of the class and read aloud a Shakespearean sonnet selected by the professor.  Exactly two weeks later, a tardy scholar knocked on the door.

He was graciously invited to enter, and handed the famous Sonnet 29 which begins:

When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state, 
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries, 
And look upon myself, and curse my fate[.]

and ends

Haply I think on thee,and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day ascending, 
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate; 
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings 
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Apparently a sea of smirking faces, washing over a hapless thespian, can drown a cultural proclivity for punctual indifference.  In any case, no student of physics was ever late to class again.


Going to the Dickens

My friends — both of them — have just read Evelyn Waugh’s weird little short story, “The Man Who Liked Dickens” with the hope of understanding my latter day enthusiasm.  Although I have absolutely no desire to become any kind of expert on Dickens’ 14 great novels, I find, to my surprise, that I enjoy immensely an hour a day in his company.

I think I like Dickens now because I am finally old enough to recognize how much I am under gladsome obligation to the foolish of this world and not merely to the wise (Romans 1:12).  In fact, to accept classification for one’s self in the category of the foolish is probably a good thing for a Christian.  Edgar Allan Poe is supposed to have said, “I have great faith in fools.  My friends call it self confidence.”  Of course, we admire the proud academics with their ever-flexible minds searching for wisdom in its complex divisions.  However, those humble people who so often find the truth in its simple unity are a wonderful work of God and we have much to learn from them.

While theologians continue to debate whether Election goeth before or after the Fall (that wonderful old debate between the supralapsarians and the infralapsarians)  everyone knoweth that Pride goeth before the Fall. Therefore, the Apostle Paul spoke against pride and in praise of folly focusing on Christ crucified and insisting that God made foolish the wisdom of this world (I Corinthians 1:20).

However, due to the very long shadow of a very small woman who taught in our high school and was a member of our church, I really wanted to be wise.  For most of my life I have thought the great books of the western world represented the wisdom and common memory of all intelligent people.  I assumed that most Presbyterians and every pastor read not only the Bible with passionate intelligence but a great deal of classical literature – certainly in English translation and often in the original languages.  After all, Presbyterians take genuine pride in being both pious and learned.  Our fine seminaries answer to that purpose.

On the first day of Miss Leonard’s class we were informed with considerable relish that she was exactly the height (5’2”) of the Emperor Napoleon and she waged fierce, yearly campaigns among us country kids for great books.  I am proud to say that during her career no overalled farm boy ever graduated from my little high school who could not recite by heart the first 18 lines of the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and in middle English!  I suspect many of them, like me, can still recite most of it.  Today’s parents might be astonished to learn that Miss Leonard allowed zero exceptions.  Moreover, the school administrators were behind her all the way.

For sermonic illustrations our pastor, facing down at Miss Leonard, was a real challenge.  This lady did not suffer fools gladly, and she regarded ignorance of good literature as foolishness indeed.  She believed there were only two kinds of people:  the literate and the illiterate.  Persons who did not grow in goodness, truth, and beauty by reading for profit and pleasure received her withering scorn.  I was more than a little afraid of her, but she was the first teacher I really admired, and I solemnly vowed to do my very best to be worthy of her intense instruction.

Miss Leonard joined the Immortals a long time since, but I think she would be outraged to learn that our contemporary culture requires three classifications:  literate, illiterate, and aliterate.  I would not want to be the one to tell her there is a category of people who are able to read but prefer not to; who can read good books with real insight but do so only when compelled by external necessity.  Obviously, references to the classical texts communicate with the aliterate on rare occasions because they read as little and as narrowly as possible.  Doubtless, the ubiquity of television is a major factor, but I do not propose to analyze or lament this situation.  Rather, I plan to take my place within it — if I possibly can.

The royal road through the classics is a stiff climb for a lot of us, and it is painful over a lifetime to fall into so many fissures of forgetfulness.  However, this mountain path seems now mostly overgrown and abandoned.  As best I can judge, the western literary canon has fired its last salvo.  My evidence is simply that I know many excellent and intelligent people today who are not at all embarrassed by how little they know of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and company — and I want to join them.

For some time now I have been guiltily engaged in reading and re-reading only the works that I have or can reasonably expect to enjoy.  And if and when I get bored, I quit albeit with a bad conscience.  The most obvious example of this new direction for me involves Charles Dickens.  When I was young I read three or four of his novels and thought I had read enough.  For 40 years I tacitly accepted the magnificently dismissive judgment of F. R. Leavis:  “The adult mind doesn’t as a rule find in Dickens a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness” (The Great Tradition, p. 32).

Obviously some adults look down on the great entertainer, but I think that Dickens is one of the best friends mankind has ever had, and while he is insensible to theological depths, I believe those of us who read Dickens will love one another and God the better (see George Santayana, Soliloquies in England).  With the profligacy of genius, Dickens is willing to spend a lot of time with us readers.  He is in no hurry to finish a story — or for that matter even to start one.  More especially, Dickens evinces an admirable kindliness and a rambunctiously infectious delight in the portrayal of a marvelous assortment of God’s odd characters from humble life.  I am enchanted by them every one and for their sakes I forgive Dickens all his faults whatever they be.  In short, no matter what people say, I am cheerfully going to the Dickens.

Miss Leonard had a book-lined room in our high school, and I am sure she has a book-lined room in God’s heaven. I am still a little afraid of her, but I am now brave enough to tell her how much she meant to me.  And when I see her again, I devoutly hope she will not be too disappointed in me.


Explaining the concept of “imagination” to his daughter, son Jonathan told this story.

“When I was a young boy, I found a material that would stick when thrown against a solid surface. So I waited until my father was engrossed in reading and heaved a glob at his leg. He looked up from his book, then down, and casually brushed off his trousers. When I asked Dad what happened he said he thought he felt a drop of mud.

Next, I took my glob upstairs to throw at my mother, who was working at her computer. When the glob hit her bare arm, she jumped up, screamed, whirled around, and grabbed at the sticky stuff–everything a young boy could hope for. Pretending alarm, I rushed in and asked her what had happened.

Mom said that for a moment she thought an alien had dropped out of the sky, landed on her arm, and was trying to suck the life out of her.

You Are What You Eat

Because we must eat in order to live, a considerable part of our life is spent at table. Apparently, our first parents, Adam and Eve, were vegetarians (Gen. 1:30) until they took a big bite of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). In any case, food customs are deeply embedded in every culture today, and food preferences identify many ethnic groups. In my judgment, no matter who is around the table and no matter what is on the table, a meal is time for pure and simple conviviality — good friends, good food, the Lord be thanked. If I were the Czar, or even the Czardine, I would prohibit the stomach-churning abomination of the working lunch. How can anyone enjoy gustation when he must watch out for kissing cozens of knaves and fools? At meals, the over-learned and the hyper-righteous are also pains in the lower back. I admire the great Nero Wolfe who resolutely forbade business in combination with food.

Food rituals are rich and varied and often confusing. I sympathize with the guest who thought the soup was rather tasteless until he realized that he had consumed the contents of his fingerbowl. Some years ago at an Ethiopian dinner, I was baffled by the absence of silverware, but just to the left of my plate in the napkin position I saw what looked like a large piece of foam rubber. I spread it across my lap only to discover that I had cleverly draped the bread across my knee. Even worse was the custom of the hostess feeding the guests. It has been many years since a woman placed food in my mouth, and I have lost the knack of opening my jaws at the right time. Closing them is no snap either. Naturally, I proceeded to bite the hand that fed me. The last time I tried to eat a ladyfinger, I was into uncontrollable drooling and had no teeth. This condition will, of course, return in time.

At the heart of Christian faith and life is a dominically instituted meal. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). Our Lord said, “Take, eat” and “Drink of it, all of you.” As a child I was deeply impressed by the solemnity exhibited by our elders folding the cloth covering the communion table. I assumed this action had some profound liturgical significance, and only years later learned that the custom of a cloth over the bread and wine was derived from the days when churches did not have screens on the windows.

Among the books we read early in our seminary career was Ludwig Feuerbach’s savage attack on The Essence of Christianity. However, Christians are in agreement with Feuerbach that man ist was er isst (one is what one eats) because Our Lord said, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

Hegel was probably right, “Thinking is also worship of God” (Denken ist auch Gottesdienst), but I really don’t want to know how many Presbyterian ministers are able to identify the Zurich Consensus (Consensus Tigurinus) and have some idea of its meaning. Moreover, I would be afraid to inquire how many Presbyterian elders understand the Eucharistic convictions of Reformed theology in contrast to Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian. Surely every Presbyterian minister knows that the supper strife of the reformation era was based on divergent Christologies.

I suppose investing so much youthful devotion onto an entirely practical tablecloth has made me suspicious about the relation between action and significance. For example, the Eucharistic distribution of bread and wine usually involves two clearly separate physical actions, but there is only one theological meaning. In every Presbyterian church I have attended the bread is first distributed and then the wine. Clearly, by my count, two actions. However, in the bread/body and wine/blood we are not being offered two things but one. According to William D. Maxwell, “There should not be two separate actions in the communion of the people in both kinds, and there should be no delay between the deliveries” (Concerning Worship, p. 61). If we suited the proper action to our theological conviction, the elders distributing the wine would follow close upon the elders distributing the bread. The Word made visible is one two-part action with a single two-part meaning: In communion with Jesus Christ Our Lord we become one with Him and He one with us.

Husband and Superman

Embarrassing my wife and children is not the main purpose of my life, but it seems to be the chief result.  For example, I believe that labeling clothing is a smart idea.  Therefore, with a broad laundry marker, I print my initials and the purchase date on every garment.  This means that in packing for a trip your newest underwear is always easy to locate.

In addition, older T-shirts, which grow thin with washing, make  wonderful summer pajama tops.  Thus, to distinguish the daily from the nightly I mark the sleep shirts with a huge letter “S”.

Four decades ago, dressing in the dark one morning, I inadvertently donned the wrong undershirt.  I discovered my mistake that afternoon changing into tennis togs in the locker room when my good buddy asked what the “S” meant.  I quickly explained that this was my bed shirt and my wife had drawn a big “S” to stand for “Superman.”  His face collapsed with incredulity since no such shirt had he.

Of course every husband’s secret bedroom dream is for his wife to draw a big Superman “S” on his chest, and I think some day soon I really must confess to my friend that I made the whole thing up on the spot.