Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The New Year’s Eve Watch Night Service

The young boy sat nervously in the back row of the basement tabernacle. (Churches were often called "tabernacles" in that day.) It was New Year’s Eve and the faithful few were gathering for an annual event to celebrate, not so much the ending of one year and the beginning of another as to anticipate the ending of an era and the beginning of another. "The Lord may come before this service is over," the preacher shouted. "He may come before 1946 has ended."

Wow! At only ten years old, the boy had a lot of living still to do. He planned to replace Stan Musial as the star of the St. Louis Cardinals. There were a couple of pretty girls that he was interested in. Perhaps one of them would consent to marry a man who would be on the road half the time during the baseball season. It was not exactly good news that "the Lord may come before this service is over."

But more than that, he knew that the coming of the Lord ushered in that fearful event, the "Great White Throne Judgment." Arrayed on one side of the Judge would be the sheep, those having done all the good works required to hear the reassuring words, "Well done faithful servant. Enter in to the joy of your Lord." On the other side would be the goats, those who refused to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. The boy knew that he would stand with the goats and hear the dreadful words, "Depart from me ye wicked into everlasting fire prepared for the Devil and his angels." He could not recall a time when he was not a "believer"; from his earliest years he had memorized Scripture, attended church, read his Bible (irregularly), prayed (irregularly), and sometimes talked to his friends about "religion". And he never doubted that Jesus was the Son of God sent to be our Savior. He had recently, in the previous few months, made a special commitment to serve Jesus as his Lord and Savior.

But . . . but he had entertained every evil thought that ten year olds are prone to entertain. He had said some words that ten year olds should not have been saying. He had often been disobedient both at home and at school. He had sometimes, in a fit of anger, wished his brothers or his father dead because of the things they had done to him. And, worst of all, he had entertained some very romantic (ten year old’s) thoughts about those two girls he admired. He had no more chance of standing with the sheep than he had of going to see a St. Louis Cardinal’s baseball game.

So the "Watch Night Service" held only terror for the young man. His only hope was that mid-night would pass and he would find himself breathing the fresh air of a year he never expected to see, 1947.

The sermon invariably began at 11 p.m., giving the preacher ample time to enumerate the reasons why the congregated saints might not walk out through the church doors that night. He was also charged with responsibility for allowing a few minutes just before mid-night so the gathered could all be on their knees praying for God to bless the new year that, odds were, would not come into being. And just as routinely, the preacher lost track of time and preached until he noticed the faithful nervously checking their watches. He would attempt to put on the brakes but preachers in those day used the brakes so seldom that they often failed when an attempt was made to apply them. So the saints invariably skidded into the new year, falling on their knees at five or ten past mid-night, thanking God for the newly arrived year. None thanked God with more sincerity than the young man on the back row. He now had 365 new days in which to be the kind of boy that would, next December 31st, stand with the sheep.

Sixty-seven years have been added to the young man’s total. He has been invited to a watch night party with some fellow believers this year. Those who make it to mid-night will "pray the new year in" if they manage to break away from their scrabble and domino games in time. There is little talk, and apparently little expectation that "the Lord might come before this party breaks up at mid-night." The "young man", like Luther before him, has learned some things about grace; learned that we gain our position to the right or left of the Judge not because of our works but by grace, through faith in Jesus the Messiah.

So the ending of one year, and the start of another no longer holds terror for the old man. But he wonders how much we have lost because we cease to daily anticipate that second advent of the Lord. Without that constant reminder that our Lord may come today, to judge the "quick and the dead," we may find it easy to neglect the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the visiting of the sick and those in prison. The Judge has told us that, as we do those things for the least of those around us we are doing them for Him.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Spread the Joy!

by Jim Rapp

Merry Christmas!
It rolls from my lips
as easily as
God bless you.

I’m not surprised,
not even offended,
when merchants mute
their “holiday” greetings.

They are for-profit
enterprises; they must
please everyone,
offend no one.

We like it that way;
we all are for-profit
enterprisers; we all
earn our bread that way.

So get off the backs
of the money makers,
let them say it
anyway they wish.

They are not celebrating
the birth of a Savior,
they believe their
profits will save them.

But we who know
the blessed One
who came to bring
us everlasting treasure,

Say, “Merry Christmas!”
We have no axe to grind,
no buck to make, just joy
to share with one and all.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

And They Say The Taxes Are Eating Us Alive!

by Jim Rapp 

I just finish roughing out
my 2013 federal taxes.
For my wife and I, about –
after Turbo Tax axes,
through credits and deductions,
an impressive chunk of change –
the cost, upon careful calculation,
of a cup each of Caribou per day.
Where, such a bargain,
but in the U.S.A.?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Death of Sweet Intercourse

NOTE: Since posting this comment last night I've come across an interesting and provocative piece in the New York Times. Written by Sherry Turkle, and entitled "The Documented Life", it reinforces the intended message of the blog piece below, that we are sacrificing our sacred gift of conversation on the altar of rapidly and incessantly changing technologies.

I haven’t gotten connected to social media, don’t own a smart phone, watch little T.V., and talk to fewer people on a daily basis than I used to. Perhaps that is the definition of retirement, or old age, especially old age for people of my generation, born before the beginning of WWII.

In my case it is largely a matter of choice.

In 1980 I bought my first personal computer, a Radio Shack Model III with a whopping 4 k of internal memory which I promptly upgraded to its maximum of 16 k. Before I quit using it I bought a third-party add-on board (actually two or three boards) that increased its memory to around 50 mb. For the most part, if you wanted any programming, you did it yourself in Basic Language. From there I moved to a Tandy 2000 IBM compatible machine, and then through a long progression of upgrades, some self-assembled, some put together by local computer shops, and finally ending up – at present – with three Dell computers in the house, one desk type tower and two laptops.

I tell all of this to say that I’m not averse to technology. I’m still looking forward to improved equipment and software that will meet my needs better than what I currently have. Particularly I would love to get rid of the “wires” that hang from every desk (my Radio Shack Model III had one wire, the power cord), all necessary to connect and power the computers, modems, routers, speakers, monitors, keyboards, mouses (or is that mice?), scanners, printers, and much else.

But I’ve outgrown the need to have the latest, greatest gadget just because it has become popular or comes in a newer neater color or shape. I’m at the stage in life that I want the things I spend my money for to provide a needed service.

And so I come to the subject of this blog entry: the Internet, and particularly e-mail. Anyone reading my Blog – at the present moment, or on a regular basis – has a clear example of the content of my e-mail messages. When I converted from letters written for distribution through “snail mail” to communication via e-mail, I brought over the same habits of layout and sentence structure I was taught were appropriate for personal or business communication. More importantly, for personal letters, I bought over the concept of conversation.

It was a bit disconcerting when I began to get “letters” from friends that did not follow those conventions; notes dashed off in all caps or with no caps, poor grammar, and spelling worse than mine. It was easy to rationalize that even in the era of “snail mail” there had been poorly written letters, so the phenomenon I was witnessing was nothing new.

Perhaps so. But now I’m receiving dozens of e-mail “communications” per week that consist only of a link to some Internet site, introduced by a few words from some anonymous person touting the link to be of great interest to me, or tremendously funny, deeply patriotic, or revelatory of some scheme by the current President to take away our freedoms. Invariably I’m encouraged to pass these messages on to all my friends so the laughter, or beauty, or patriotic ardor, religious sentiment, or news of conspiracy, can be shared by the millions.

What is invariably missing from those e-mails is conversation, discourse, or what an older generation called intercourse before that word came only to denote sexual intimacy. Never is there a word in these e-mails of personal greeting, a statement about the state of mind or health or well-being of the person sending the e-mail to me. Never is there a question about my state of mind, or health, or well-being.

Sometimes the list of recipients of the e-mail is visible. Squinting to scan the list and locate my name, I realize that the chance of the sender having thought of me for even a second of time was about one in thirty-five. This is neither conversation, discourse, nor intercourse. I am hard pressed to know exactly what it is. I know that it neither reflects well upon the sender or his opinion of those to whom he sends such trivia.

And now I’m being urged to move on up a little higher to the worlds of Facebook and Twitter; to converse in acronyms, photos, and brief statements bearing little context in which to judge their full meaning. It is an invitation to disaster for friendships. The correspondents must either restrict their communications to trivia or risk misunderstandings that are hard to remedy.

I have friends who say they never read their e-mail. A few have Facebook accounts, mainly for the purpose of seeing what others are saying about themselves. One has to wonder where conversations occur now. Those fortunate enough to meet with friends and relatives often may be able to converse if the TV, smart phones, and gaming devices are turned off long enough to allow that to happen. But those separated by the miles are often as isolated from each other as were their ancestors in the day when postal service was slow and uncertain.

Our forefathers used to speak of “sweet intercourse”, meaning the precious time spent exchanging joys and sorrows, successes and failures, ideas great and small, either face to face or in long and detailed letters. We cherish those collections of letters, from Harry Truman to his “Dear Bess”, from Jefferson to John Adams and vice versa, from C.S. Lewis to an American lady he never met but with whom he faithfully corresponded, carefully responding to all her questions regarding life and theology, the letters of Paul, and Peter, and John, and Jude to the early Christian churches. Are we leaving anything of comparable value to those who follow us? I fear we are merely re-Tweeting trivia and trash, Forwarding foolishness and malicious factoids.

I am no Luddite. I value the technological innovations that made my life and work more interesting and productive, from that Radio Shack Model III computer to the marvelous Kindle that allows me to carry a thousand books in my hand at one time, more easily than I once carried one. I may someday own a smart phone if I see that it meets needs that current technologies do not. I may someday open a Facebook account if I sense that it enhances the sweet intercourse I cherish with those I know and love. I may even learn to Tweet someday.

All of these, and more to come, are an inevitable consequence of our free market system. We cannot stop them from coming. But we can decide when and how they should impact our lives. And we can determine that they will not interrupt the indispensable flow of serious discourse between us and others we know and value.

Speech, later enhanced by writing, is arguably the greatest gift possessed by humankind. Speech allows us to communicate in the present; writing allows us to learn from the past and communicate with the future. But in the here and now – which is really all we finite creatures have – writing gives us the opportunity for sweet intercourse with all those people in our e-mail address books. Let’s not waste that valuable opportunity by sending on meaningless Forwards, re-Tweets, and trivial Facebook entries.

Talk to someone on that smart phone, making their day; sit down and write someone a long and interesting letter that they will save and cherish for years to come.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Advent of the Promised Drone

by Jim Rapp

The prophet has spoken . . .

I heard just yesterday that drones
will soon deliver my Amazon
purchases – as soon as they have honed
the system. With all glitches gone,

at the FAA’s approved hour,
the skies will be lighted by a million,
or a million to the hundredth candle power,
as mini semis, an Amazon battalion,

with no human hand to steer,
no human eye to see,
will descend and drop their gear
precisely where it’s meant to be.

The prophecy is fulfilled . . .

Today I watched a “drone” in action,
pushing down our street a laden dolly,
piled high with boxes, often losing traction
on the icy sidewalk – losing boxes – what folly!

It was an auxiliary UPS delivery man.
On foot! Delivering,– as postmen did of yore –
packages disgorged from a fleeing van
to be hand-delivered, from the dolly, door to door.

I wanted so to roll my window down –
human kindness alone deterred me –
and ask if he was the Promised Drone;
the Amazon Messiah that we seek.