Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Picture is Worth a Dozen Stories: Part 1 of a series based on 2 Samuel 11 & 12

I just heard another thoughtful sermon on the episode in King David’s life, recorded in 2 Samuel, in which the prophet Nathan confronted his friend, the king, accusing him of killing Uriah so he could have his wife, Bathsheba, as his own.

It is a complex story that can be viewed from many angles: from Nathan’s point of view, from David’s point of view, from either Uriah’s or Bathsheba’s point of view, from the point of view of various observers, both within David’s court and without – and of course, from God’s point of view.

Those who compiled the accounts that constitute the “David Story,” as Robert Alter has called it, had their purpose in doing so. It appears to be a typical Middle Eastern series of annals intended to record and legitimize the line and reign of the king, in this case, King David. Whatever those authors had in mind, I believe God led them, sometimes wittingly, sometimes unwittingly, to preserve that which served His purpose: revealing the plan of salvation being working out through David and his flawed descendants.

But, like a photographer whose photo catches unintended objects and actions of interest, these stories reveal more than the specific subject the authors intended. The main object of the story of David and Bathsheba is to reveal God’s displeasure at their actions and the awful and lasting consequences that would result. However, other characters managed to get into the picture, becoming objects of our interest, examples both of noble and ignoble behavior.

In the each of the next several entries in The Cottage on the Moor I want to explore the story from a point of view that may or may not have been intended by the original story tellers. I venture to do so with some trepidation. It is not my wish to contradict or obscure the purposes of the Holy Spirit with my interpretations. I will undoubtedly step beyond a mere interpretation of the facts presented and look for motivations that are not specifically spelled out by the Biblical writers. In doing so I hope the reader will feel free to bring his or her understandings to bear on the stories. I believe such study is what is indicated by the Psalmist when he speaks of meditating – day and night – on the Word of God.

Madeline LeEngle and others have contended that the Holy Spirit works incarnationally to accomplish God’s will in the world. By that they mean – and I agree – that God speaks and acts through his creation, breathing his Spirit into it, trusting the created thus to reveal the Creator. It is an act of faith on God’s part, a compliment to his creation and particularly to mankind. He knows that distortions will occur and has plans to deal with those. For some mysterious reason He does not abandon the plan when it becomes terribly messy but, instead, continues revealing His power and majesty in “earthen vessels.”

I believe that the Holy Scriptures are a case of special inspiration. They are God’s “Top 66”, must reading for anyone wishing to more fully understand God and his purposes for mankind. But they were not dropped down from Heaven on golden tablets, or dictated to scribes bent over benches in candle-lit rooms; even in them the principal of “incarnation” is at work. The Holy Spirit chose flawed and fallible men, living in a particular time, with a particular perspective on the world, with normal strengths and weaknesses, and breathed in them, inspiring them to speak and write – in their own words, through their own understanding   words which He would sort through to select those worth preserving as the Word of God. And later still, when other men, for their own reasons (they supposed), wished to assemble a canon of authorized Scriptures, the Holy Spirit was there to guide their selection. They often acted out of mere – sometimes petty – human political motivation but God meant their work for good, and thus was born both the Old and the New Testaments. Together they give us a picture of man’s place in creation, his unique fallenness, and God’s plan for saving him.

It is with that understanding of how God works in the world that I approach my calling and pursue my work. Paul, the apostle, told the Corinthian church, “You can all prophecy.” In other words, they could all be the incarnated presence of God at any moment by their words and by their actions. It should be our goal to always and only speak clearly and honestly for God. We will fail often, sometimes spectacularly. We need not fear that our imperfections, revealed in the deficiencies of our speech and behavior, are an obstacle too great for God to overcome. He is accustomed to working in fleshly media. He once did so through His own Son, to much better effect than He will ever work in you or me. But still He persists in storing his treasures in “earthen vessels.”

Monday, May 30, 2011

Why Am I So Confused?

If there is nothing new under the sun, why am I so confused?

At about thirty years old most people have learned that the novelty wears off a “toy” very quickly.  There is no ultimate “toy” that will be forever new. If Solomon is right, there are no new “toys.”

Deep down in the pit of my philosophical heart I agree with old Solomon’s adage. The things we want, and the things we want to do, have not changed in their basic nature, nor have the basic tools by which we achieve them. We still must follow the laws of nature; we still must deal with human nature. The discoveries we herald from time to time are just that, discoveries of things that have always been, but which our limited senses had not yet perceived.

That is what confuses me, the changing perspectives. They have the look, and feel, and ring of something new. They require me to let go of the old before I have a full, firm grasp of the new. I hear the language change to accommodate meanings that confuse me, make me wonder if I’m the butt of someone’s joke. We are always in language school, relearning English as a second language.

A “portal” no longer refers exclusively to ship’s windows; now it is an intangible passage in the ether through which invisible cargo flows in bits and bytes and megabytes. A “cloud” is not an accumulation of moisture and debris floating above the earth; rather, it is a massive storage device where my zeros and ones are mixed with yours, but, in some mysterious fashion, they can be sorted out to let me know how much cash I have in my savings account without revealing to me, your business . . . well, most of the time.

We are told that knowledge is increasing – doubling, they like to say – at generational speeds; what I know, my son will not need to know, what he knows I have no hope of learning. So they say. But is it true? Are we truly creating something new? How different is a high-flying surveillance plane from a Civil War Hot air balloon, a drone missile from a stone hurled with a catapult, a distance, calculated by computer, from one scratched out in the sand? The goal and end are the same. The technology is the variable; mechanical eyes replace human eyes, combustion takes the place of counterweights and tension bars, zeros and ones in a high speed computer take the place of yes and no in a human brain.

It can all seem so new, so confusingly new! But it can also seem boringly the same. That is what old Solomon discovered after a life spent “tasting” every new thing his mind or heart could wish. If all our technology were to vaporize today we’d be left with the same needs to fulfill, and we’d find ways to meet them just as amazing as those we marvel at today. We would marvel then at the ingenuity of man as he recreated his world to do the same old things in the same old ways.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Bold Boast

                     A Bold Boast
                                by Jim Rapp

“We have a lot to be thankful for,” I said.
“I could name a hundred things,” she replied.
“If you really think you can, then go ahead.”
“It might take a week,” She said with rueful sigh.

If every week we did a hundred-count,
And no two weeks we named the same,
Still, fifty years would not amount
To half of all that we should name.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Era of the Ignoramus in The Age of Ignorance

My young grandson was watching me from the back seat of the car as I navigated through the streets. After some time he asked, “Grampa, why do you keep moving the steering wheel?” I explained that I had to do that to keep the car on the road; that the wheels were always being turned a tiny bit by bumps and unevenness in the road and I had to turn them back to keep a straight path. Furthermore, the road was not straight so I had to adjust continually to stay on it.

I’ve often thought that anytime we set out on a journey, on foot, by car, or in an airplane, we spend most of our trip off target; if we continued in the direction we are going at almost any particular moment we would miss our destination by a larger or smaller degree. We navigate by constant reassessment and adjustment. In the end, however, if we have made the necessary adjustments along the way, we arrive at the destination we desired. When asked how the trip went, we reply, “Perfect, I came straight here with no problem at all,” ignoring the thousand corrections it took to get us there.

It isn’t only in our physical travels that adjustments are required to get us to a correct destination. If we expect to arrive at the truth about anything, the “steering wheel” of our mind must also be constantly in motion, adjusting to changing conditions and new information. Refusal to make a correction in our thinking is just as disastrous as rigidly holding the steering wheel of the car or the rudder of the airplane in one position. Still, we all know those who take pride in the inflexibility of their opinion; who, in fact, ridicule those who take account of information not directly within their line of sight. “Broadminded,” they sneer at anyone who dares consider all the available information.

If we were omniscient, it would be a sin to doubt ourselves, but since we are not “all knowing,” it is a sin not to question our judgments, consider alternatives, entertain the opinions of others, weigh our conclusions, seek direction. Ignorantia juris non excusat. Ignorance of the law does not excuse. That is true whether the law being ignored is a statute on the law books, a law of nature, or simple common sense. Ignore the truth and it will bite you in the backside.

We are in the Era of the Ignoramus. Not just the stupid, or even the arrogant, both hard enough to endure, but the ignorant, who choose to ignore information that could correct their course and lead them to useful and true conclusions. Sadly, these are the men and women who lead our government, are the captains of our economy, the icons and idols of our social institutions, and yes, even the pastors, evangelists and theologians of our churches. They are ideologues and opportunists with their hands clenched tightly on the steering wheels of our society, willing to drive over the cliff rather than admit that they are off course; rather than make the adjustments needed to arrive at a good end.

We need to take away the keys from such as these. They are drunk on greed, power, and self-adulation. At the very least, we must cease to ride with them. Better still, refuse them the right to drive at all. We can do it; we can take away their keys by the choices we make individually, at the ballot box, in the market place, at the bookstore, at the theater, in front of the T.V., and in our choice of the faith community and faith leaders we associate with. If we allow the ignorant, the arrogant, the greedy, the self-promoting, self-congratulating, self-serving, self-rewarding, self-indulging, to stay in the driver’s seat, then we are ignoramuses ignoring ignoramuses, and the Age of Ignorance will go on.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Father Abraham Had Many Sons

President Obama is reaping the animosity of the pro-Israel wing of the Evangelical community for suggesting that the pre-1967 Palestinian-Israeli borders should be the basis for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Time will tell if the proposal has any effect at all upon the relations between the Jews and Arabs involved. Certainly, it will cost the President the support of some Jews who voted for him in 2008. He does not stand to lose any support from most pro-Israel Evangelicals. They had written him off before he even became a candidate for President. He cannot lose what he never had.

Consequently, the negative electoral fallout from Obama’s proposal will not be great. In that light, it is reasonable to view the President’s actions as expressing a sincere belief that it serves the interests of both Israel and the Palestinians to make peace with each other. Further, his suggestion recognizes that the only way to provide the land necessary to create a viable state for the Palestinians, is to give them back the territory taken from them in the 1967 war, or, as the President suggested, make mutually agreed “swaps” to accommodate the status quo. Certainly, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, nor Egypt will donate land for a Palestinian nation. Either it will come from restoring territory taken from the Palestinians or there can be no two-state solution.

The broader question that concerns pro-Israeli Evangelicals is, what, exactly, did God promise to the Jews regarding the ownership of Palestine; do modern developments in that region reflect a fulfillment of that promise? Or, specifically, is it God’s will to reestablish a Jewish state in the “end times”? Is it the obligation of the Christian Church to support a modern, secular, state of Israel regardless of its policies or its treatment of its Arab neighbors and citizens?

In the opinion of many sincere and competent Christian scholars, the New Testament offers not a shred of support for the idea that a reestablished Jewish nation is essential to God’s redemptive plan for mankind. The belief that a “national Israel” is essential to God’s “end time purposes” may, in fact, be a dangerous distraction, turning the attention of large parts of the Evangelical church away from its central mission, into a fruitless and destructive debate that alienates millions of Abraham’s Ishmaelite sons, to whom God has called it to witness, and giving a false hope to other millions of his sons through Isaac, who need to see that their salvation is in the acceptance of the Messiah, not the building of an earthly kingdom.

A careful and honest reading of the Genesis account shows that Yahweh gave Abraham the promise of a land for his descendents to inhabit. When Ishmael was Abraham’s only son, Yahweh specifically directed Abraham to circumcise him, bringing him under Yahweh’s covenant. Abraham and Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, were specifically promised that Ishmael’s line would be “fruitful” and would encompass many (twelve to be exact) nations. Abraham was renamed – from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many) – to confirm the promise that his descendants would encompass many nations; that many “kings” would be among them. Isaac, on the other hand, was the “son of promise.” Through Isaac’s line, and through the line of  Jacob (Israel), all mankind, would be blessed. Ultimately it was to be Isaac’s line through which the Messiah would come, and through which the Gospel would go out to the whole world.

The Apostle Paul – the Christian Church’s first theologian – concluded that all the promises given to Abraham and his descendents found their fulfillment in Jesus, the Messiah. Neither he, nor any other first century Christian writer suggests that the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan requires the reestablishment of a national identity for the Jews. Paul goes so far as to call the first century believers – Jews and gentiles alike – the “Israel of God.”

So, political events happening in our time, in the old Jewish territories of Palestine, are irrelevant to the Christian’s Church’s message of salvation in Christ. Whatever territory there is to be divided up, will ultimately be divided between sons of Abraham. The ideal solution would be a one-state national home for all the sons of Abraham, with the “sons of Ishmael” and the “sons of Isaac” living side by side as neighbors and brothers. That is not likely to happen anytime soon, but the theological underpinning of the President’s proposal1 is more Biblically sound, and no less conducive to the Christian mission of bringing every “tribe and tongue” into the fold of God, than that of the pro-Israel wing of Evangelicalism.

Regardless of what kind of state, or states, are established in the region of Palestine, the Christian Church has an obligation to bring the truth of Christ’s Messiahship to all who live there. If the Christian Gospel is true, then both the Jews (Isaac’s descendents) and the Muslims (Ishmael’s descendents) have lost their way and need to be pointed to the Messiah, the Son of Abraham, through whom “all nations will be blessed.”
1I am not suggesting that the President has theological motives for his proposal, only that there are, in our present situation, theological implications of any proposal dealing with the disposition of the former Palestinian territories.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I Was Wrong

I wish I could remember the authors of all the cool quotations I carry around in my head. Furthermore, I’d like to be sure that what I’m carrying around is relatively close to what I remember hearing or reading years ago.

Somewhere, several years ago, I came across a quotation of a very famous and authoritative 19th century author who said, “The only thing that doesn’t change is a rock.” We can immediately begin nit picking that statement because we know that even rocks weather and crack. The author’s point though, was that rocks have no will to change. Any change that comes to them is imposed change.

We have a great ambivalence toward change, praising it in those of whom we approve, while condemning it in those we oppose. Our tolerance, or intolerance, for change can be a simple preference for doers rather than thinkers. Philosophers, theologians, politicians are thought suspect if they have changed their views at any time since their youth. Engineers, inventors, doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, are dismissed as “out of touch” if they haven’t changed their ideas and methods as recently as last week.

I couldn’t escape these thoughts as I waited over the weekend to hear what the Family Radio preacher, Howard Camping, would say about his failed prediction that the Rapture would occur on May 21st. It would have been too much to expect an immediate admission of error. Even the most saintly of us need some time to rearrange our pride after a major loss of face. But I had hoped that a weekend of solitude, and perhaps reflection, would have convinced Camping that a simple, “I was wrong,” was the best response to his embarrassing error. Sadly, Camping could not bring himself to such a confession. If he lives until October 21st, at which time his third prediction will likely prove as far off the mark as the previous two, he will be given another chance to own his error and die an honest man. I pray that he will.

Sadly, there are two things that do not change: rocks and prideful humans. Rocks can be excused, they have no will to exercise in the matter. Prideful men and women are without excuse. When they choose to stubbornly cling to lies, about themselves, others, or the world around them, they become useful only as the butt of everyone else’s frustration and/or humor.

We all have an opportunity to become agents of positive change in our world by doing two simple things: 1) learning to use the words, “I was wrong,” and 2) becoming tolerant – even affirming – of those we know who are willing to learn, and speak, those simple words.

Such humility and generosity will prepare us for the world to come, in which nearly everything we think we know will be shown, in whole or in part, to be wrong. Some imagine that heaven will be the place that confirms all that they have believed. More likely, they will spend their first days there, looking up those with whom they’ve disagreed and saying, “I was wrong!”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Knowing Your Song and Singing It

Anne LaMotte has suggested that a writer should force himself/herself to write three hundred words per day, even if they are not very good words. Most days it isn’t hard to produce three hundred mediocre words, but the goal, I think, is that most days he or she will produce useful words, well crafted and meaningful, perhaps even of interest to others, at least editable words that, with some effort, are capable of becoming useful words.

The first thing a writer must ask is, why write? And then, why me? And finally, why this?

None of those are easy questions to answer. There is a sort of arrogance in the assumption that one should write, as though they have anything to say that requires the permanence of a written record. To speak is often more than the world requires of one, but to ask the world to remember what was spoken, or in the case of a writer, written, must be the height of vanity.

And, even if that which is written has merit, surely there are others who can express it more powerfully, convincingly, artfully, worthily. With the advent of the computer and the Internet, everyone who desires to do so can become an author. So why should I, or anyone else presume to speak to, or for, the masses?

The same can be said for that which is written. Solomon is reputed to have said that there is nothing new under the sun. I suppose, in the 3,000 years that have transpired since he made that observation, some new thing may have occurred and, if so, it deserves to be recorded for the benefit of future generations. However, for any particular writer to assume that he or she has discovered that new thing is, again, an arrogant stretch.

So, Anne LaMotte, why should I be writing three hundred words per day? Why me? And, why the things I write? (By the way, I hit 300 words after writing, “So, Anne.” By rights, I should have quit there.)

I write because I love to do so. The old Puritans used to talk of “calling,” and as late as the mid-1940s my sixth grade teacher used the same language. The idea is that we are made for a purpose, undoubtedly for many purposes. I believe I was made to, among other things, write. That doesn’t mean that I think my words are better than those others write, probably they are not. A bird doesn’t ask if its song is better than that of other song birds. The trees may be full of twittering birds but each sings what it was made to sing and the world gets to judge the value and beauty of its song.

It isn’t always easy to decide what to write about. Sometimes it is – an idea is burning in one’s mind and seems to need expression – but often there is no urgency to “speak.” Some would advise writing nothing on those occasions. At times, I wish I had written nothing. But just as often, I return to a piece that I labored over the day before and find that it has more worth more than I had credited it with.

So, bloggers of the world, blog on. Farmers, farm on. Fry cooks, turn those steaks. If we all do what we are called to do, and love to do, the world will be a better place, filled with the music of our various birdsongs.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Song to Sing Alone In The Night

I know the first line to dozens of songs. My friend, Forrest knows all the songs I know and many more I’ve never heard. And he can sing all four verses! Of course, we both grew up in an era when songs stayed around long enough to become a part of our daily vocabulary.

Most of the songs Forrest and I know are hymns and gospel songs. We heard them and sang them week after week throughout our childhood and far into our adult lives. Granted, some of them were rather trite, some were downright bad theology. But most were instructive. Forrest says he learned his doctrine from the hymns he sang.

It is easy to become crabbed and critical as one grows older. The world inevitably changes and it is common for the old folks to believe that the new is inferior to that which they valued from the past. I’ve determined not to become that kind of super critic. But there are different ways to be critical. We need to be analytical and capable of judging the relative merits of the things that come into our lives. To paraphrase the Apostle Paul, “all things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.”

Perhaps we need to be asking what we are losing when we cease to sing the best songs over and over and over again. And I’m not saying the best songs are necessarily the oldest ones. There are wonderful songs and choruses being written today but they must continually fight to hold their place in the repertoire of congregational singing. Very few survive for more than a handful of years. Most are gone in a matter of weeks. Not many of today’s “Forrests” can sing them by heart as they drive to work from day to day. There are no thick “hymnals” of contemporary Christian music to preserve the best and most meaningful songs of our time. When the band goes silent, and the screen goes blank, how many can continue the song unaccompanied?

The choice of our day may not be, traditional vs contemporary. It may be, instead, corporate singing vs no singing at all. I don’t think it is just the old man in me that notices the relatively fewer worshipers who sing the “modern” songs. Moreover, it isn’t simply a nostalgic longing for the good old hymns that causes me to believe I see a far greater percentage singing when the hymns are being sung. It isn’t that hymns are better than contemporary songs. It is, I believe, that they stayed around long enough to become the core of worship. I suspect that not many of today’s worshipers can sing even the first line of the songs that now seem so relevant to our worship.

The challenge for worship leaders – bless their hard-working hearts – is, not only to be “relevant,” but to instill in worshipers lasting values, to give them a song to sing when they are alone in the night.

If the song sheet is constantly changing, it sends a message that the values proclaimed are fleeting as well. It seems to say, any song will do as well as any other. And one has to wonder if, fifty years from now, very many of them will be remembered, to say nothing of coming automatically to the lips of the “Forrests” of that day?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Truth Tellers

   Truth Tellers
       by Jim Rapp

God is not a myth,
But myth may be
The only means
By which we come
To know Him.

In pristine Eden
God was seen
Face to face
And known
Heart to heart.

But ever since
We know Him only
Through the stories
Told of Him –
Man-made stories.

Except for one brief
Glorious moment,
When God incarnate said,
“If you have seen Me,
You have seen the Father,”

Holy men of old,
Flawed earthen vessels,
Have crafted stories,
Under inspiration,
That tell of Him.

And still today
Flawed men and women –
Inspired and set apart –
Craft their art
To tell of Him,

Some to great acclaim,
Some in simple testimony,
All attempts to frame
In human frailty
The image of their Maker.

All stories that
Fail to tell of Him,
At best, are worthless;
At worst they are
Demonic lies.

God is not a myth
But myth may be
The only earthly means
By which we come
To know Him.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil & The Power of Myth

Truth is stranger than fiction, they say. I suppose it is so. Truth, coming from the infinite store of God’s reality, carries with it an unbounded ability to surprise, mystify, and challenge the assumptions of our limited receptivity. Fiction, the creation of man’s finite imagination, limited by his verbal inadequacy, must construct its wonders from the stuff of God’s reality, rearranging and recombining it in ways reminiscent of, but inferior to His creativity.

However, fiction, one of the languages of man, is not devoid of all truth. Indeed, myth, rightly used, approximates truth, points to it, illuminates it, imitates it. It is an attempt to convey by other means, realities, stubbornly ignored, or ignorantly overlooked by those inured to them by constant exposure. Myth can be a gateway to understanding, guiding us to age old realities by means of “made-up tales.”

The wisest among us have always known the power of myth; have crafted stories and created characters so vivid that they inhabit our world on a par with real history and real heroes. Hamlet, Lear, Frodo, Scrooge, Linus, Charlie Brown, Aragorn, the Prodigal Son, all walk our streets as surely as any of us, speak to us, inspire us, amuse us, almost daily. We refer to them as though they were lifted from the pages of history. We call them by name, quote them, even validate our ideas by their words.

It was said of Jesus that he only spoke to the people in parables (stories, myths). By doing so he assured that those who were capable of belief would understand, but those who despised myth would be left in the dark. So it has been with balladeers, storytellers, dramatists, even children’s writers through the years. So it was with black slaves, crafting sermons and songs that seemed to convey the Christian hope, but to the knowing said even more.

Still, in this time, we need prods to remind us of the truth – about ourselves, about our society, about the world in which we live. The raw truth is unbearable much of the time. If it were not for the myth-makers we might have long ago ceased to care about the Truth. Shakespeare’s mythical Hamlet said it well, “The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.” And Shakespeare must have had in mind, the prophet Nathan who, with a myth, captured the conscience of another king, David of Israel.

Perhaps a time is coming when we will no longer need myth to tell us the truth; perhaps we’ll see then, face to face, and know as we are known. There is a moving passage in the third book of Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. (I think it is in the third book, I’ve been unable to relocate it.) In The Return of the King one of the elves is contemplating his departure from middle earth, going to the final abode of the elves. He laments the fact that, according to rumor, in that place to which he was going, the Malorn tree, which he had seen in Lorien, and come to love with its golden leaves, did not exist.

We who have found much comfort under the boughs of the Malorn-myth tree, learning truth there, will someday live in a land where it does not grow. Looking from this direction, having come to love it, we are tempted to grieve its loss. But when we stand in Eden’s garden, in sight of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we won’t miss the Malorn-myth tree at all.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

At the End of the World

    At the End of the World
                    by Jim Rapp

We stand, perpetually,
At the end of the world.
There is no other place to stand.
But slowly we sense
That this is not Apocalypse,
Not Armageddon, not Gog nor Magog,
Not even a Rapture.
We are all "left behind".

Crowded here,
At the end of time,
We shuffle for space,
Vie for attention,
Fight and die for trivialities,
Called wealth, fame,
Pleasure, comfort,
Health, possessions.

We peer into the Abyss
Called Future,
But dare not, cannot
Go there.
We turn to examine
The Past
And find it filled with
Confusing mists.

And so we pivot
On our tiny plot of now-ness,
Unable to see ahead,
Unable to see behind,
Unwilling to admit
That this place,
At the end of the world,
Is man's appointed home.

Sorry the man,
The woman,
Who knows not that
A home is to be lived in;
A place of love,
Security, contentment;
A place to put down roots
And raise a family.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End Is Near – Tomorrow Already!

If you need to get it done, today is the day to do it. You might have a few hours tomorrow but there is no guarantee. Unless . . . unless you are one of the unfortunates who will not be raptured on Saturday, May 21st, 2011. In that case, you’ll have some time after Saturday, but many distractions as the world collapses around you over the next five months.

Howard Camping of Family Radio has created a stir in some quarters, even within the church, with his prediction – his re-prediction; he made a similar claim in 1994 and has since recalculated – that the Rapture of Christian believers will occur on May 21st, 2011, followed by a five-month slide into anarchy, ending in a final judgment and the end of the world.

My wife failed to factor Camping’s prediction into her thrift sale plans. We’ll need to find some unbeliever who will agree to sit at the sale after Alice is whisked away. And I foolishly made a promise to meet with a long-lost cousin on Monday. I hope that she will be one of those raptured so we can have our meeting somewhere in the sky.

Most Christians believe in a return of Christ at the end of time. So it makes them reluctant to poke fun at claims like those Camping and his followers have been making. It could very well be that Christ will return on May 21st, 2011. But if I were betting, I’d put my money on almost any other day.

Jesus, who is the source of the belief in his return at the end of time, said, “no one knows the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will come.” He said that day will come as a “thief in the night.” He predicted that there would be no unusual signs pointing to his return. There would be wars and rumors of wars, as there always are. People would continue marrying and raising families, as they always have. In other words, there is no way to prepare for his return except to continually believe it is coming and to live a life worthy of his approval when he comes.

Camping is just another false prophet in a long, long line of false prophets that stretches back as far as the first century church. There has not been a generation of Christians, since Jesus’ own day, that has not eagerly looked for, and longed for, his return. Apparently, that is part of the plan. Jesus himself, in one of his parables, tells of the “master of the house” who went on a long journey and stayed so long that his servants lost faith that he would return. They began to act badly toward each other and faced the master’s wrath when he suddenly returned.

The challenge to Christians at times like these is to recognize the false prophet, not get caught up in his erroneous predictions, but still keep the hope alive in their heart that God will, in His own good time, bring history to an end that accomplishes His purposes and brings glory to his name.

Some seem to make it a badge of honor to be among those raptured when Christ appears, but the Apostle Paul, speaking of this very event, says that those who are caught up in the rapture will not precede those who have died in the faith. The “dead in Christ will rise first” and then all will go “to be with the Lord in the air.”

We can’t possibly know the details of those wonderful events. We most certainly can’t know their timing. Anyone who tells you they have it figured out has missed one crucial truth – Jesus himself said that no one, including himself, can figure it out. We need to quit trying.

I expect Alice to sit at her thrift sale on Saturday unless it rains too hard. And I expect to meet my cousin on Monday. I also expect the Lord to return at any time. Contradictory? Perhaps, but I’ve learned to live with it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Living beyond the Edge

Alice and I recently went with friends to see the play, On The Verge, Or the Geography of Yearning, by Eric Overmeyer. It is a delightful portrayal of three Victorian Era women who set out to explore their world. They find themselves traveling not just in space but in time as well, eventually arriving at the year 1955. The women in the play have varying responses to the future and ultimately different limits to how far they wished to go into it.

The play served as a reminder to me that all of us are facing the future with eagerness, indifference, stoic resolve, fearful foreboding, or stubborn refusal.

The future is a concept that has no reality. It always seems to be ahead of us, beckoning us to come to it but vaporizing . . . no, morphing into the present even as we set foot into it. We are living in yesterday’s future but we crossed no border to get to the “now” we find ourselves in today. It will always be so. Futurists abound in this optimistic society, painting pictures of what will be. At most they are redisplaying the best of what has been, clothed in a perfection no future of the past has ever been able to deliver. The future is the demon mirage that lures and maddens part of our race, terrorizes another part, and leaves the majority alternately hopeful and despairing.

The Christian faith seems to hang on futuristic beliefs. It looks for a returning King, promises a coming age of perfection, points to life after death in heaven. There is truth in all of that. Jesus, however, taught a greater truth when he offered “everlasting life” to those who believed on him. He did not promise a future life of a different character than the present one. Rather he promised to put eternity into our present life. “Whoever believes in me has everlasting life,” he said. (Jn 6:47) Another time he said that those who believe have “crossed over from death to life.” (Jn 5:24) To the believing thief who was crucified with him, Jesus promised, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

To the unbeliever, death is the doorway to every future, decreeing that old things must give way to make room for the new. Thus, the anxiety of those who dread the passing of the old, and all the more when that which is “future” can only dimly be seen. Some resist going, others, convinced that the new will be so much better than the old, find it hard to wait.

Christian believers who know the promise we have been given, need neither to fear death nor be anxious about the future. We are already living in something better than the future, God’s eternal now. There is just enough of the curse of death still clinging to our bodies and spirits to give us a sense of living “on the verge” of greater freedom. There is a “geography of yearning” in all of us. But we have – not just in theology or doctrine or figure of speech – no, in reality, we have “crossed over from death to life.” We are living now, beyond the edge, in eternity.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Buying a Day at the Park

Dad was never eager to take us to the 4th of July celebration at Weldon Springs Park. Of course we kids were always eager to go. It meant a picnic in the afternoon, perhaps a tour around the lake in a rowboat if we could persuade Dad to rent (and row) one, and a variety of other entertainments, staged and invented.

The invented entertainments consisted of ball games followed by an exploratory walk around the park, ending with a drink at the public spring. The park surrounded a man-made lake which was fed by springs that gave it its name. At one location, near the main pavilion one of the springs flowed out of a pipe, into a basin. The water was icy cold and clear as crystal, tempting on a hot steamy day. But only the brave could drink it. It reeked of sulpher and iron giving it just the mystique it needed to convince the locals that it was a healthy tonic of some sort. In recent years a sign has been placed by the spring warning that the water is unsafe for drinking. It probably was then; nearly everyone I know who drank from that spring has died, and I haven’t been feeling too well myself of late.

The staged entertainment often consisted of music provided by one or more country music group. Some years a traveling Southern Gospel Quartet would give a concert. One year a boxing ring had been set up and some “champion” from out of town was offering $50 to anyone who could last through a match with him. The boxer was young and muscular and obviously good at his trade. At first there were no takers, but finally some men in the crowd convinced a rather over-weight, inebriated man of about fifty to get in the ring with him. For two or three rounds the crowd cheered on the local fool as the boxer pounded him into a bloody mess. Hopefully the town fathers who decided to ban drinking from the contaminated springs have put an end to the boxing spectacles as well.

Finally the penultimate event, the fireworks, occurred. Penultimate because there was one more event to follow that explains why Dad was not eager to go to the 4th of July celebrations. If the weather was typical, the day would be hot and humid. Though the fireworks occurred after dark the temperatures would not have fallen much by 10:45 p.m. or so when we started for home. Traffic was always heavy, and the going very slow as we waited in a line of cars that inched ahead just fast enough to require dad to keep the engine running. Our Model-A Ford, which was not made for such driving, continually overheated. Each year we came prepared with several jugs of water and rags to use in removing the hot radiator cap. Marvin, the oldest boy – and the one with the most dignity to lose if his school mates happened to witness the event – was the official coolant master, hopping out to add water when Dad decided it was needed. On a good night we would get to the open road with only a couple of stops for coolant replenishment.

Dad had to be “bought off” each year so we could see the fireworks. The most common bribe was a morning spent weeding the garden. Sometimes we were sent back two or even three times to get it right before Dad relented and agreed to take us to the park. He continued to resist the 4th of July ordeal, even after the Model-A gave way to a more reliable vehicle, which makes me wonder if it really was the inconvenience of an overheated car that triggered his reluctance. It could have been his coy way of getting that garden weeded early in July.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Because You Asked

           Because You Asked
  (A poem-response to a question)
                            by Jim Rapp

You asked – or wondered at –
The meaning of happiness. You guessed
Quite rightly of its roots; that
Happiness – gay Happiness – when pressed
Admits her "joy" is made of happenings;
Of things, and moods, and times
That pass away.

Her sister, Joy – less often sought,
Because she can't be found by seeking –
Her sources twain, and naught
But twain can bring her into being –
Comes only when the seeing eye beholds
The giving Hand, responds with Joy,
And then rejoices.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Good News for Beleaguered Christians

If you don’t know what is good for you, help is near. Not only near, it is everywhere. Nowhere is “help” easier to find than in Christian circles. Almost forgotten is the day when Christians sat each week under the tutorship of a single pastor and perhaps an occasional visiting minister, when their instruction in Christian manners and character came from daily interaction with believers who lived in the same house with them, or down the road, or across town. Today, television, the internet, conferences for men, women, children, and couples, reinforced by ubiquitous Christian self-help books and DVDs, bring the ordinary believer a steady stream of “expert” – and often contradictory – Christian advice on everything from dieting to dying.

It makes one wonder how the Church survived through the centuries without the aids to spirituality that prop it up today. No preacher is worth his salt if he has not published his messages in one form or another, spreading the wisdom he bestows upon his local congregation to the world at large. The assumption seems to be that the Holy Spirit only “shows up” in large auditoriums where renowned speakers deliver the latest spiritual insights; that local leadership, local worship, local righteousness, local doctrinal instruction, and local spirituality are inadequate to prepare one for serving God.

The spiritual gurus point to Bible as their authority, and appeal to us to accept their interpretation of eschatology, ecclesiology, soteriology, missiology, pneumatology, anthropology, and a dozen other “ologies.” They remind me of those Jewish teachers of the Law whom Jesus said, lay heavy burdens on the people’s backs but don’t lift a finger to help bear them.

The Bible paints a far different picture of the God-pleasing life. Even under the Law, God made it clear through his prophets that “extreme Religion” was not what he wanted. Listen to the prophet Micah:

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

 How many DVDs, books, conferences, special meetings, spiritual retreats are required to learn to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly before God? Is instruction in those attributes beyond the ability of a local pastor, of one’s parent, spouse, or good friend?

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul makes it equally clear that aerobic Christianity is not what God is seeking from us. He may place us in situations that require us to show great faith, great endurance, great resistance to evil, but he does not require those things of all of us all the time. He does not require that we seek such experiences. And never does he make it a requirement for our acceptance in Christ. He tells us in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no-one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The good news is that you can save your money, save your time, save your energies. You don’t have to be anything other than a believer in Jesus. God will make you what he wants you to be and give you the work he wants you to do. He will tell you, day by day, week by week, how to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly before your God. And I’m betting that it will all occur within a ten mile radius of where you sit right now.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Is It Labor Day or Memorial Day?

There must be a name for what ails me. I know I’m not alone in my malady but that is cold comfort. Even knowing that Dave Barry shares the affliction brings me no comfort, just the knowledge that I am not alone.

I am oppositionally challenged. Confronted with a set of opposites, my response is almost never automatic, I must make my choice by establishing some concrete points of reference.

There are two exceptions, well, near exceptions; I can usually distinguish up from down or in from out. Thankfully that allows me to get up from chairs and come in out of the rain without undue delay or embarrassment. I wish I could say that those exceptions hold in all cases but I occasionally find myself speaking of someone coming “up” to Eau Claire who is, in reality, coming down from Duluth. (As kids we always went “up town”; it was only years later that I discovered that a large part of the world went “down town.”)

Be warned, if I tell you to go right there is a fifty-fifty chance you should go left. Unless I have prefaced my instructions by mentally deciding which hand I write with (I’ve been told I’m right handed . . . I think), it is only a matter of chance that I will give a correct direction. And if you ask me to point you to the west, it will require me, at least mentally, better yet in actuality, to face north (if I’m lucky enough to know which direction is north), visualize a map hanging over the blackboard in Miss Matthew’s sixth grade classroom, and determine that east is to my right.

When the school year is about to begin I’m likely to think we are moving into spring, and when it is ending, I have the feeling it is fall. Which is it? The opposite of what my brain is telling me, I’m sure. I’m likely to deliver a May Day basket to your door on April 1st and try to trick you by telling you there is egg on your face on the first of May.

But nothing confuses me like Labor Day and Memorial Day. I know that one comes a few days before school is out in the fall, or is it spring? The other comes a few days after school begins again in . . . uh . . . well, you get it. It is all terribly confusing. Thankfully the picnics associated with the two days call for the same menu. The temperature and the chance of rain is similar. The same aunts and uncles come up (or is it down) for the occasion. One falls on the first Monday of the month, the other on the last Monday of the month. That’s confusing too; they could have been more consistent, but it might only have made matters harder to remember. The flag is more prominent in one day’s celebration than in the other but, for the life of me I can’t remember which. I know that in one, old soldiers march, and in the other, old workers parade.

I’m still tortured by a wrong set of instructions I gave to a man seeking my help 56 years ago. I was living in Minneapolis. My first morning in Minneapolis I awoke to find the sun coming up in the north. Ever after, and to this day, north is east in Minneapolis. One day as I was walking in some unknown direction on Chicago Avenue a man pulled his car to the curb near me and asked directions to Hennepin Avenue. Alas, street names often get confused in my mind as well. Only after he had thanked me and driven off did I realize that I had sent him south – or was it east – to Lake Street instead of Hennepin Avenue. As I think about it, he may have asked for directions to Lake Street and I sent him to Hennepin. In either case I’m haunted by the thought of a very old man, still driving in search of whatever street it was he was looking for, having seen gas prices go from twenty cents per gallon to over four dollars. But I did the best I could. To paraphrase my Daddy’s words, “My directions ain’t the best, but sich as they are, you are welcome to ‘em.”

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What Do The Simple Folk Do?

Holidays have always been the province – and the joy – of the working poor. For the indigent, every day is a day, free from labor. The wealthy create leisure at their pleasure. Those we call the middle class are typically granted a week or two each year, sometimes more, to use as they wish. The working poor alone must wait until a day is given them.

In medieval times the poor were granted rest (and recreation) on holy days; days decreed by the church, often as a way to Christianize a persistently pagan population. Still, despite the best efforts of the Church to the contrary, many such holy days retained elements of their pre-Christian aura. The peasantry thought nothing of blending the beauty of spires, stained glass, sermons, and song, with pagan influences unconsciously perpetuated, but nonetheless ingrained, and too delight-filled to forget. A mixture of sacred and secular slowly turned holy days to holidays; days in which food and drink and festivity took center stage.

I’m surprised at the ease with which my parents accommodated the pagan elements in Christian and other holidays. It seems out of character for Dad, whose conscience would not allow him to eat in a church owned building, or to buy or sell on the Lord’s Day, to perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus, or help his children deliver May Baskets. It is just as jarring to recall my mother, whose Nazarene roots kept her from wearing jewelry, even her wedding ring, nonetheless creating costumes for her children to wear at school Halloween parties, or making Easter Baskets and hiding eggs all over the house for children and grandchildren to find.

But they were the working poor, so their holy days had to double as holidays. Except for Sunday, there were no other “days off”. Their five and a half or six-day work week included half, or all, of Saturday. Even secular "holy days" – New Years Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving – had to do double duty, serving their original purpose as days of reflection and gratitude, but more obviously as rare respites from labor, providing opportunities to enjoy simple pleasures.

It is easy to overlook the working poor in a society like ours. They are working all around us, in restaurants, nursing homes, day care centers, department stores, schools and hospitals, piecing together full-time work from several part-time, minimum wage jobs. They receive no benefits and certainly no paid vacations. Most of the holidays that, in the past, would have signaled a day off for them, have been taken away by our 24/7/365 world. Even if a day is granted it is almost certainly a day without pay.

The question posed in Camelot is more relevant today than ever, “What do the simple folk do, that gives them a pleasure or two?” I wonder if cable and satellite TV, Xboxes, iPads, and cell phones – the toys with which they entertain themselves – are a fair exchange for holidays our society once thought necessary, but now no longer observes as a day of rest and recreation. When does our world ever shut down for a working man’s holiday?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Name, Rank, and Serial Number

None of us knows where our breaking point is, what it would take to squeeze a confession, real or fake, from us. In small ways we are confronted daily with the choice of yielding to pressures or resisting. We win some and lose some. We hope we’ll never be confronted with an “ultimate” challenge to our integrity. I had not lived long, probably only nine or ten years, before my test came. And I failed it.

It began on the walk home from Webster School one afternoon. There was a scant three blocks between the school and our house but in that distance the greatest drama of my grade school years would begin. About a block from the school was an open lot visible from the second story windows of the school. A group of students had reached that point.

When I arrived, I discovered that a male student, whose name I no longer recall, had confronted a pretty, blonde neighbor girl, Patricia Willoughby, threatening some kind of violence to her. Patricia was the daughter of the street wrestling, knife throwing, neighbor woman who lived across the street and two lots south of our house. There is little doubt that Patricia had inherited from her mother full ability to defend herself. She may well have been the instigator of the incident. But it was an age of chivalry and she was a maiden in distress. True knights do not question the virtues, the guilt or innocence, of the damsels they are fated to defend; they simply defend them.

The incident was quickly over. I stood between the attacker and the damsel and declared my intention to defend her. The attacker decided to show his prowess by attacking me with a rusty tin can he had pick up near him. As he approached me I did what my radio heroes did when confronted with an armed enemy; I kicked the can out of his hand. It landed at my feet. I picked it up intending to throw it far out of the attacker’s reach but instead it sailed a few feet, wobbling feebly to the ground. The confrontation ended without any wounds being inflicted but as I walked Patricia on home I couldn’t help feeling some chagrin that the wind had caught that can and made my mighty gesture look so feeble.

But the real test of courage came the following day. We discovered that Big Brother (or several Big Sisters, in the form of our teachers) had been watching the entire event from a second story window of the school. All the participants in the melee were gathered in the Principal’s office. It was an era when corporal punishment was still legal, and rumored, at our school, to consist of a stiff paddling by Miss Matthews with a wooden paddle.

We were informed of the wickedness of our behaviors the day before. Though the witnesses knew nothing of the causes of the fracas, nor the relative innocence or guilt of the participants, they knew what they had seen and it was worthy of a good paddling. We could, however, avoid that pain by admitting our sinfulness and saying we were sorry. One by one the criminals were broken; tears and apologies gained their release. But one stalwart knight refused to yield. For another ten minutes or so he was cajoled and threatened, even shown the instrument of punishment. Nothing moved him . . . until Miss Matthews said, “I know your mother and father would not be pleased that you were involved in a fight on your way home from school. I think we’ll need to bring them in tomorrow and talk about this.”

Miss Matthews was wrong. My father, at least, would have been supportive of my knightly valor. But neither he nor Mom would have looked kindly on being dragged into a conference at the school. There would have been a price to pay at home far more painful than anything Miss Matthews could inflict. I broke, gave her the tears she wanted, and the apology.

No knight of valor here. You want more than name, rank, and serial number? Just threaten to bring Dad into the situation.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

We Have Met The Homeless, and They Are Us

The sirens blared but few even turned their heads. With the White House only a block away one would think every gun would be drawn, every pedestrian hugging the ground. But only the tourists showed interest. It is a non-occurrence for a homeless man to need emergency care. This homeless man was fortunate; his massively swollen leg had triggered compassion in someone who cared enough to call for help. Each year many of his “neighbors” die while sleeping on grates near taxpayer supported government buildings.

How have we come to this? This is not the vision of America we carry in our minds. Homeless men dying on our streets? An anomaly? A recent, temporary phenomenon that a well conceived government program could alleviate?

Not so. Homelessness is as old as the human race. Our oldest ancestors became homeless, locked out by their Father for refusing to live by His rules. Their oldest son became a murderer, a fugitive, a wandering homeless man. The father of the Hebrew people was a homeless man, as was his son and his grandson after him. The Son of Man declared he had “no place to lay his head.” The most poignant story Jesus ever told, we call “The Prodigal Son,” a story of homelessness. Homelessness is as human as flesh and blood. The entire world lives one second from homelessness, one earthquake, one tsunami, one tornado, one fire, one illness, one recession away.

And yet we aspire to “make a home” for ourselves and our children. We pray that they will provide one for their sons and daughters. The horror of every parent is the possibility that their child will choose, or have forced upon them, a homeless life; that they will be denied, or forego, the security of a career and the stability it provides.

Our mother must have feared that her children would become rootless. We lived in poverty, next door to homelessness. Any day in my youth I could walk to a hobo camp with fresh ashes and debris from a recent encampment of transient men, riding the rails, coming from nowhere, and going nowhere. Occasionally a ragged man would appear at our back door asking for a cup of coffee. Mom knew that he really meant “a meal.” I don’t remember her ever refusing to provide one. The men were never invited in – I don’t know if they would have accepted such an invitation. They seemed happy enough to enjoy their food and coffee seated on the back step.

I remember one such man whose manner fascinated me. He ate his food leisurely, and sipped his coffee with relish, ending each draught with a loud exhalation, “Haaaaa!” There was a romantic air about him; he was almost gentry, except for the rags.

Later that evening the family was eating at the dining room table. My drink, alas, was not coffee. (Except on Christmas morning [and during surreptitious trips to the Railroad CafĂ© with my brother, Marvin] coffee was forbidden to us boys; it was thought to stunt a child’s growth.) Instead I had either water or milk, I don’t recall which. But with every sip I emulated my new hero with a pronounced, “Haaaaa!” Mom must have observed the hobo’s manners too that day and recognized my attempt to emulate them. I was quickly informed that polite people don’t make those noises when they drink. That was news to me; my hero did. But I knew enough to comply with the rules of the table where I was fed.

I think, though, upon reflection, that my mother’s real concern was that I would be drawn away to a hobo’s life, ending up a homeless child, riding the rails, and sipping begged coffee with elegant relish. It is the unspoken fear of every mother.

And she was right to fear. I have lived my life, a homeless son of Adam, like all those who “ride the rails” with me. But I have come to realize that the food I beg from door to door is nothing to savor, nothing to sigh over; it is really pig’s food, and I am on my way back home, to a banquet at my Father’s house, never to be homeless again.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Do You Call That Religion?

There was an old piano in our dingy, crowded basement. Mostly it served to hold a little radio that was strategically placed to catch the a.m. radio broadcasts of the St. Louis Cardinals. But occasionally someone would sit down and plunk out a tune on the piano itself. Almost from the beginning of our time on North George Street we owned a console model of a crank Victor Victrola and a collection of 78 rpm records, some suitable for sing-along purposes. In later years a beat-up, undersized guitar came into the household, later still to be joined by a harmonica and a Jew’s Harp. Eventually our sister, Istra, would bring her string-band friends for weekend concerts. But, for most of our music-making we had only our voices.

Mom and Istra sang duets trading between harmony and melody. Donald and I sang together but with both of us singing melody. I have no memory of Dad or Marvin singing “formally” although Dad was a “whistler” and a “hummer” both traits I unconsciously inherited from him. Our songs fell within the narrow range of hymns, camp meeting songs, folk songs, and popular country songs. Later Southern Gospel quartet songs would be added to the mix.

In the early years, when all the kids were still at home, during evenings, we would sometimes gather in the living room to make music. On one occasion everyone brought out their comb and by laying a small sheet of wax paper over it and humming with our lips pressed to the wax paper, we could make a bazooka-like sound, or more likely a hornet’s nest-like sound. It was high good fun and even those who lacked the confidence to “solo” or “duet” (Marvin and Dad, primarily) could hum away with abandon. When the concert was at its peak there was a loud knock on the front door. The concert abruptly stopped and we all looked at each other, waiting for someone else to answer the door and explain to the visitor the reason for all the commotion. Eventually someone mustered the courage and found Mom, grinning, enjoying her joke immensely. She had slipped, unnoticed, out the back door and circled around to the front. It was very likely she who had started the concert in the first place and no one who knew her would doubt that she might have had the whole scheme in her mind from the start.

On another occasion most of the family had gathered in the kitchen to shell popcorn into a large washtub around which we were all seated on stools or chairs. I was leading the group in an enthusiastic rendition of “Do You Call That Religion,” a lively little refrain that repeated after each of the many verses that detailed behaviors (lying, anger, gossip, etc.) that did not qualify as good religion. The clinching phrase in each round was, “Do you call that religion? No, child, no!”

In some manner that I’ve forgotten I managed to slip and strike my lip against the edge of the tub we were shelling the corn into. No damage was done to my lip as far as I recall but it did end my enthusiasm for the song. In fact it evoked the kind of instant rage that often accompanies an unexpected strike or a blow to the face. The others were amused at my sudden change of mood and their amusement amused me, not at all, triggering tears and a “rare” flash of anger.

The chorus was immediately struck up again, with one sulking boy the butt of the punch line, “Do you call that religion? No, child, no!”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Everyday Fare

“It ain’t much, but such as it is, you are welcome to it.”

Those words were Dad's stock invitation, issued to anyone arriving at the Rapp residence, unannounced, at meal time. Frequently the invitee declined, but not always. It may have depended upon what they anticipated being included in the offer. The “it ain’t much” gave no clue. It very well might not have been more than bologna, spread with mustard, on white bread with cold beans on the side. But it could be ham and mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans and corn, biscuits, and apple cobbler for dessert. One had to use their nose to tell. It was best to make one’s appearance at the back door. It looked in on the kitchen and, when open, conveyed the aroma of the fare being offered.

Meat was not a part of every meal. It was expensive and, even into the middle forties, it was reserved for Sunday dinners and occasions when company was expected at mealtime. Chicken was the most notable exception since there was always a rooster or hen within reach if needed. But even chicken more often found its way into chicken ‘n dumplings or chicken ‘n noodles where it could be stretched to serve many people and perhaps made to cover several meals. Fried or baked chicken was Sunday fare, or prepared to be taken to a picnic.

Breakfast often consisted of toast and fried eggs. We had no toaster so everyone toasted their own bread – often home-made bread – by spearing it with their fork and holding it over the open flame of the gas or kerosene cook stove. If company came, larger quantities would be toasted on a cookie sheet under the oven broiler. Pancakes were a frequent alternative to toast and eggs, as was biscuits and gravy. Sausage or bacon strips were weekend treats in those early years.

Dinner was the noon meal and it was a lighter affair, again unless company was known to be coming. The uncertainty of who would be there, coupled with the likelihood that not all would arrive at the same time made it into a do-it-yourself event much of the time. Bologna and cheese sandwiches, or left-overs, supplemented with pork ‘n beans and canned fruit sauce, served us and any guests who happened to be there at dinner time. On Sundays, dinner became the main meal. Guests were not frequent but when they did come it was often a “traveler” or preacher who had been invited at church that morning.

Supper was served in the evening and, until work schedules began to fracture the family’s togetherness, everyone was expected to be home and ready to eat at meal-time. The meal might consist of left-overs from several previous meals but that was unlikely in the years when we kids were young and had the appetites of youth. More typically we were fed potatoes, and gravy prepared with grease saved from some recent roast, ham, chicken, or wild game. It was especially good if the gravy contained bits of the meat itself. Vegetables, fresh from the garden, or from quart jars, canned the summer before, helped fill the plate. Home-baked bread or biscuits served as “mops” to make sure no nutrients were left on the plate. There was always the hope that the meal would conclude with a fruit cobbler or fruit and dumplings.

But the very best supper of all was cornbread and beans. The beans were white navy beans bought in bulk and put to soak overnight in salt water until they were somewhat softened. The next day they were drained, rinsed, and put in a large pot of water with a generous portion of pork rind from a recent ham, or pork bones bought from the butcher shop just for the occasion. The pot simmered all day, sending its tempting aroma through the house. An hour or so before supper Mom would mix up a “batch” of cornbread, usually baked in a shallow cake pan. It all arrived, steaming hot, at the table. In summer fresh green onions would complement the feast, out of season quartered pieces of onion would do. Scarcely was a meal of beans served without some reference to the “musical effects” the beans were expected to produce, perhaps even a popular little ditty to that effect would be sung.

Meals at the Rapp house weren’t much, but if you dropped in unexpectedly, as we were sitting down to eat, you were welcome to it – such as it was.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Dust Kicking Up Dust

There is invariably – invariably – a difference in what we intend and what we get. It is not always a significant difference, often not enough that we even take note of it. Sometimes the difference pleases us, surprises us with a bonus for which we had not even hoped. More often, however, we get less than we had planned for, lower quality and less quantity. Sometimes we get disaster.

All of this is the result of our humanity. Adam was so named because he came from adamah, (ground or earth). In the Hebrew Scriptures adam more often referred to “man” or “mankind” than to the single forbearer of the human race, and thus could have been translated “earthly one(s).” Our word, “human,” derives from the same root as humus (ground or earth). Other important words come from the same derivation, “humility” or “humiliate” as examples. We are, of the earth, earthy.

Too often we forget our humanity when planning the course of our lives. In fact, we sometimes assume that it gives us an advantage over other creatures or over other aspects of creation. We speak of “humanizing” as though that results in elevating that which we humanize. It may, and it may not. But the point I want to make is that, as humans, we are not gods, and certainly not God. We are not all knowing, all powerful, nor everywhere present. And therefore we cannot know the end from the beginning – that which we get, as a result of our planning, will not be exactly that for which we hoped. It may be wildly different.

These thought pressed themselves on me as I read opinions about our military’s assassination of Osama bin Laden. Two Presidents have vowed to find, capture, or kill him in retaliation for his planning of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and several other bloody attacks around the world. It is reasonable that he should be brought to justice, if necessary, hunted down and killed, for such atrocious deeds. The assumption over the years seemed to be that he would be found, hidden away in some fortified enclave, perhaps in the remote mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan, surrounded by armed guards who would fight loyally and fiercely to defend him, but that, in the end, he would be captured or killed. Not clean and simple, not without the loss of American lives, perhaps, but certainly a reasonable and just end to a heartless terrorist.

But things we plan seldom end the way we anticipated; we are humans, mere dust, kicking up dust, and can see no farther than the moment in which we live.

So the final moments came, not at a heavily guarded mountain retreat, not in a massive assault with casualties on both sides, but in a residence, in a residential neighborhood of a middle class city, a short distance from the capitol of Pakistan. In the final battle, no Americans died and only one of the “defenders” fired shots at them. All but one of those killed was unarmed when he or she was shot. And bin Laden himself was gruesomely killed in the presence of his 13 year old daughter. Much easier than anyone had imagined.

But then the unintended consequences had to be dealt with: how to dispose of the body of bin Laden, how to prove to the world that he was truly dead, how much of the information found at his residence to make known to the public, how to sort out the inconsistencies in the accounts of the raid, how to explain to a sovereign ally our decision to bypass them in the operation, how to convince skeptical allies around the world that our action was the appropriate one. All difficult questions to answer. We will be months in the answering.

But the unintended consequence I find most disturbing is the effect this decision will have on the President and those close to him who aided in the planning of the mission, and those who carried it out, particularly the man who killed bin Laden.

If it had gone as we have long hoped it would; if a manly fight had occurred with only bin Laden and men loyal to him dying in the fray, all involved could get a good night of sleep when it was over. But there was that girl. And there were those other children in other parts of the compound, a doctor killed, and one of bin Laden’s wives wounded. Were they complicit in his crimes? Are they living casualties of the raid?

Will that navy SEAL ever be able to remember his heroic deed without seeing the horror on a thirteen year old girl’s face as her father’s brains were blown out before her eyes? Will President Obama be able to look at his twelve year old daughter without thinking of the daughter of bin Laden, staring in unbelief at her father’s lifeless body, watching strangers carry it away.

These are my thoughts today. We are but dust, kicking up dust, never knowing for sure what we are doing. I think of all those who said, “Yes” to the mission, and now carry the horror of those moments with them. They did it on our behalf. The least we can do is pray for them.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Two for One

Some have questioned my designation of our oldest Brother, Marvin, as “Best Big Brother,” asking if I did not fear offending my brother, Donald, by overlooking him for the honor.

I’ve weaseled out of those inquiries by saying that Donald and I were so close in age, just fifteen months separating us, that we were sometimes thought of as twins. Though he was a little “bigger” than I, it was not by much. And though he was always better looking than I, it was, again, not by much.

But there are other reasons why I chose to overlook Donald. I think, in many ways, he has already received his rewards. Like the Pharisees of Biblical times, who had, in Jesus’ words, “received their reward” by praying on the street corners to impress those watching them, Donald often seized his reward immediately rather than waiting for time to bring it to him. And often not just a singular reward, but two or three times his reward.

The pattern began early, when we were no more than three of four years old respectively. We still lived on Clay Street in a house with a roofed porch across the front of it. The porch was enclosed in a wooden banister intended to protect children our age from falling off and getting injured. It occurred to Donald and me that the banister resembled, in some very vague way, a horse that we could straddle and ride. A Sears and Roebuck catalog, draped over the banister provided a saddle, albeit a very precarious and slippery one. We were warned NOT to use the catalog as a saddle.

Warnings mean little to boys that age so the practice continued with minor incidents occurring from time to time and warnings becoming sterner as time went on. One day Donald was riding his horse, fully saddled, when something went amiss and he plunged, head first, to the ground some five feet or more below. Unfortunately his head struck a small metal toy motorcycle that was lying there, opening a large gash in his forehead. He was rushed to the hospital to have stitches applied to the wound. During interrogation at the hospital he chose, rather than admitting that he had broken the “no saddles rule,” to claim that he had fallen because I pushed him.

Donald arrived home enjoying an ice cream cone, his reward for bravery during the stitching process, and his compensation for the “injustice” perpetrated on him by his nasty younger brother. I was quickly indicted, tried, found guilty, and spanked for my alleged crime. (It occurs to me, just now, that my visceral distrust of our “justice system” may stem from that very early encounter with it.)

I would like to say that Donald repented and ever after was wholly fair in his dealings with me. Sadly it was not until many years later, after he had adjudicated hundreds of disputes between his six sons, that he began to repay the damages inflicted in our youth. It has been a long process; his demonstrated rule of retaliation was, “two hits back for every hit suffered,” sometimes “two hits in anticipation of a future hit that might, or might not ever be inflicted.”

He has been diligent in the last fifty years or so, repaying injuries inflicted in those youthful years, with kindnesses and generosity bestowed. I’m willing now to let bygones be bygones. However, he shouldn’t think I’ll be nominating him for any rewards any time soon. As they say, “I can forgive, but not forget.” I’ll always remember his smug enjoyment of that ice cream cone.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Seeing Things His Way

After 46 years of marriage, Alice and I started out on our honeymoon trip, one month after the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers. Our trip, planned in 1957, but postponed until funds were available, took us to Minnesota for a brief visit with relatives, then on to Montana to see Glacier National Park and a visit with more relatives in Kalispell, Montana. From there we went to Washington State, Oregon, and California, visiting old acquaintances and relatives, and seeing wonders along the way. From Southern California we wended our way through Arizona and New Mexico up into Colorado taking in many of the historic landmarks. Finally our trek through Nebraska and Iowa brought us home to Wisconsin.

There is much to admire in our country, the endless plains and prairies, the towering mountains, the scene of devastation at Mr. Saint Helens, the gigantic Redwoods, the richness of the California vineyards and farmlands, the mystery of the desert formations, and the welcoming greenness of Wisconsin. Amazing too is the resourcefulness of our people. No terrain is too barren, too dry, too swampy, too low or too high, for one of our kind to make a road, and build a house, and raise a family there.

And no tragedy is so sobering that our merchants cannot find a way to profit from it. Within a month of the attack on the Twin Towers we were finding, strewn across the western half of the nation, displayed at every tourist stop, bric-a-brac, with a 9/11 hook associated with it – a flag, a dramatic picture of the towers ablaze – and always, a promise that a portion of the proceeds from the item would go to “aid the victims of the 9/11 attack.” Pardon my skepticism.

If our honeymoon trip had occurred in the weeks immediately after our wedding, we would have traveled essentially the same route and visited many of the same sights. The people we visited along the way would not have been there yet so our focus would have been much more on each other and we would have spent more days viewing the wonders of nature. But much of what we saw would be a blur by now. Indeed, much of what we did and saw on our belated honeymoon is a blur, partly because time blurs all things, but also because the events of that time pulled all other things a bit out of focus. Only one thing continues to stand out in strong relief from that 9/11-haunted honeymoon trip.

On that first stop in Minnesota, during a conversation with Alice’s cousin, David Cutsforth, he related an incident that I’ve shared a dozen times or more. David had been contemplating the well known Biblical verse from 2 Chronicles 7:14, “ . . . if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

The portion of the passage that David was curious about was the phrase, “and seek my face.” Everyone he had asked to interpret that had told him it meant to pray, but he objected that prayer had just been mentioned in the sentence, so “seek my face” had to mean something else.

One day, while in church, David observed a young boy, chosen for the first time to place transparencies on an overhead projector during the singing portion of the service. The boy was nervous, afraid he might not do it just right. So, when he had positioned the first transparency, and adjusted it, he quickly glanced across the sanctuary to the place where his mother was seated, seeking some signal from her that he had done it right. David said, he knew, from that day on, what “seek my face” meant.

Our honeymoon trip, September 11, and that story, are permanently associated in my mind. We are told that churches in the United States were unusually full the Sunday following the attack on the Twin Towers. A panicked America was “seeking God’s face.” A month later, hundreds of merchandisers had shifted their gaze to cash drawer. And ever since, we’ve looked to our Defense Department and Homeland Security to punish our enemies and keep us safe. Now we dance in the streets at the death of our enemy, celebrating the prowess of our military. Not to take anything away from the courageous men who stormed bin Laden’s compound, but shouldn’t we pause now to “seek His face?”

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hellfire and Brimstone

I grew up in a hellstorm. That’s right. I didn’t mistype that. The sermons I heard as a youth, and continuing into much of my adult life, were calculated, shaped, and delivered to “bring people to a faith in Christ.” That, after all is the “great commission,” isn’t it? In the view of most of the tent revival preachers and evangelists I sat under, the most effective way to “bring people to a faith in Christ” was to make them believe in Hell. Surely, the logic went, if one were given a choice between heaven and hell, they would choose heaven, which by extension meant, “receiving Christ as the one who saves from hell.”

No text from the Bible struck greater terror in my heart than Matthew 24, and every evangelist must have know how a sermon based on that chapter could reduce me to a squirming, white knuckled, target for an “alter call”.

Briefly, Matthew, chapter 24, relates four teachings of Jesus: 1) the faithful and unfaithful servants, 2) the ten “virgins”, five of which had lamp oil on hand to carry them through the long wait for the arrival of the bridegroom, and the five who didn’t, 3) the two servants who invested the “talents of silver” entrusted to them, earning interest for their master, opposed to the slovenly one who, in fear, buried his talent, and 4) those who served Christ by visiting the sick, helping the poor, and visiting jails, contrasted with those who did not do those things. In every instance, the ones who did the right thing received commendation and those who did not were severely punished.

Naturally, if the assumption is that sinners must be “brought to faith in Christ” and that the most effective way to do so is to scare the hell out of them, then the preaching strategy ought to be emphasize the punishment meted out to those who failed to do the right thing. It didn’t seem to matter how many times I had repented of my evil ways at an altar, the next time those sins were paraded before me they fit like a glove, I squirmed, the evangelist saw me, and I was added to his tally of souls saved from hell that night. I must have added, over my young life, to the “success” of a dozen or more evangelists.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I had the courage to open my Bible and look carefully again at those stories. I was asked to “preach”, of all things, at a little Indian mission church in Northern Wisconsin. What led me to Matthew 24, I’m not sure, but what I saw there encouraged my heart. I saw the flipside of all those sermons from my youth. I saw a description, from the very words of Jesus, of how one who has put their faith in him can live a life pleasing to him and beneficial to the world one lives in.

I stood to “preach” that morning, as a sinner, before a congregation of sinners. I could have rained brimstone on them reminding them of all the ways they regularly fail in their walk of faith. But I had a new vision of what it means to serve the Christ in whom we all had placed our trust.

I told them that, in Matthew 24, Jesus taught that: 1) servants who are faithful in doing the tasks to which they are assigned in life, large or small, will be rewarded, 2) servants who are always prepared for the appearance of Christ in their lives will enter into a banquet of participation in what God is doing at any particular time, 3) that servants who use their gifts (money, skills, etc.) to advance God’s purposes on earth will be commended and blessed, and 4) servants who serve the needs of those they meet everyday are, in reality – not virtually, but really, concretely, objectively – serving the Christ whose name they bear.

In Matthew 24 Jesus was speaking to two groups of people simultaneously, a large group of “disciples” who had put their trust in him, and a hardened, skeptical cadre of Jewish leaders who rejected him and were already plotting to kill him. Jesus, in his stories, was contrasting the behavior of those two groups and pointing out the consequent rewards or punishments awaiting them. All through my youth the evangelists assumed I was one of the Pharisees. I wish they had assumed, instead, that I was a disciple of Jesus (I believe I was) and encouraged me to see the blessing I could enjoy by becoming his servant as well.