The mockingbird

The mockingbird is the state bird of five states—Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas—and is the former state bird of South Carolina. When I lived in Florida, I heard a story about how the mockingbird was chosen as state bird. They said that a collection of birds native to the state was gathered so citizens could judge which bird had the most beautiful song. Proponents of the nightingale were convinced at first that their bird would win, but after a week the mockingbird had become so adept at imitating the nightingale, adding its tune to its own song, that the mockingbird was declared winner of the contest.

I remember one mockingbird that lived in the same neighborhood where I lived that year. It had somehow acquired a knowledge of the (human) classics, as it included famous (human) music in its song. I remember that it sang the ten-note motif of Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony. I cannot remember the other tune it sang, but it was very familiar—perhaps the first seven notes of Beethoven’s Fur Elise.

But for all its talent, the mockingbird is still a bird-brained creature. It has no real judgment, in spite of appearances. Late last night or early this morning (I didn’t check the clock.), I heard a mockingbird going through its routine. Suddenly, in the middle of its string of beautiful calls, it included three squawks of the blue jay. Blue jays do not shout in the dark of night, nor would a blue jay fit its rancid call into a space of the mockingbird song. No, this local mockingbird had chosen to include the blue jay among its imitations, which shows how little appreciation of beauty the bird has.

I once read the following anecdote in Readers’ Digest: a state highway worker drove to a rest stop along the highway to perform needed maintenance. He parked his truck, turned off the engine, put the keys in his pocket, and left the vehicle. Suddenly he heard the sound of the truck’s back-up warning. Panicked, he turned to stop the truck; then he saw the mockingbird, perched on a tree branch above the truck, imitating the back-up alarm.

Maybe birds are not as stupid as we think they are. J.

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Fire at Notre Dame

During the holiest week on the Christian calendar, one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world was badly damaged by an accidental fire. Over the years, many church buildings and houses of worship have been damaged and destroyed by fire: sometimes accidental fire, sometimes fire caused by lightning, sometimes arson, and sometimes acts of war. But yesterday’s fire at Notre Dame of Paris will be remembered more than most church fires because of the history of the building, because of its status as a landmark in Paris, and because of its beauty. Citizens of Paris and of France mourn the loss, as do many people around the world. Roman Catholics and other Christians mourn the loss, but so do many people who are not Christians. Already large amounts of money are being promised to rebuild what was lost and to restore what was damaged.

A few people might say that the money would be better spent meeting the needs of the poor or spreading the news of the gospel to all nations. That feeling has always existed within the Church. When a woman anointed Jesus with perfume, his disciples grumbled about the waste, but Jesus responded, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 13:8-9). Jesus accepts the artwork created to honor him as he accepts all sincere worship from his people. The glory of God and the gift of salvation through Christ is proclaimed by cathedrals with statues and stained glass windows as well as by humble preachers in humble surroundings.

But what of the commandment to make no graven images? What of the sin of the golden calf? Idols are works of religious art, but they have a purpose: they are meant to capture the divine and to make the divine serve human purposes. God does not oppose all religious artwork: the same God who banned graven images and despised the golden calf also told Moses how to make the ark of the covenant, including the mercy seat with its two cherubim. The sin is not in the work of art; the sin is in the intent of the people, whether they wish to honor God, or whether they wish to honor themselves and establish control over God.

God designed a tabernacle to travel with the Israelites in the wilderness so his dwelling would be in their midst. King Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem based on the pattern of the tabernacle so God would dwell in the midst of his people, even though the entire universe cannot contain the Lord. Imagine the heartache and despair of God’s people when Solomon’s temple was destroyed at the end of a long siege by the Babylonians in 586 BC. But God worked in history so his people could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The second temple was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 AD. Jesus prophesied that the temple would be leveled, with no two stones atop one another, and this was fulfilled when Roman soldiers pried apart the stones of the ruined temple to gather the gold that had melted and flowed between the stones.

Forty years before the destruction of the second temple, Jesus entered that temple and drove out the moneychangers and the merchants of sacrificial animals. When temple authorities asked Jesus who gave him the right to do these things, he responded, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it again” (John 2:19). “But the temple he had spoken of was his body” (John 2:21). For the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), just as he made his dwelling in the tabernacle and in the temple. The human body of Jesus is the ultimate temple, the dwelling of the Lord, the one point of access that people have to the true God.

What happened to that body, that temple? It was arrested, accused, convicted, and sentenced to death. It was slapped, beaten, spit upon, and handed over to the Romans. It was scourged, mocked, tortured, and killed. It was nailed to a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem and left to die in the darkness of Good Friday. Yet, as Jesus promised, on the third day it was raised, restored, healed, and made alive, never to die again.

The fire at Notre Dame reminds Christians of the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday. I hope and I expect that Christians will gather in or near the ruined cathedral this Good Friday and will hear again the scriptures that describe the destruction of the true Temple, the body of Christ the Lord. I hope and I expect that the same Christians will return to the cathedral Easter morning and will hear and celebrate the scriptures that describe the resurrection of the true Temple. Wherever Christians gather this Friday and this Sunday, they will speak, not of a beautiful building damaged by fire, but of a beautiful Savior crucified and risen. May the fire at Notre Dame be a witness to the world of the Passion of our Lord and of his victory over all evil. J.

The two natures of Christ

When Christian leaders met in the Council of Nicaea, they prayed and studied the Bible and discussed its message to determine whether the Son of God is equal to the Father or is less than the Father; whether he is eternal like the Father or created by the Father. Their study and discussions convinced them that Jesus is, as they declared, “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” This was no new teaching; it was a summary of what the Bible says about God. Christians continue to believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, not three gods; that each is a distinct Person loving the others and speaking to the others, and doing things for the others; that each is almighty, all-knowing, present everywhere, eternal, unchanging, and holy. Yet there is one God, not three gods; one Lord, not three lords; one almighty Being, not three almighty beings; and so on.

When other questions arose about the Christian faith, new councils formed to learn the truth the way the truth about the Triune God was learned at Nicaea. They gathered, they prayed, they studied Scripture, they discussed, and they reached an understanding. Most of the questions they sought to answer were about Jesus. Knowing that he is God and also that he is human, Christians struggled to comprehend and to communicate how the two natures (divine and human) work together in one Christ. Many false ideas were suggested about the two natures of Christ. Some suggested that his body is human but that his mind and soul are divine. Others suggested that the two natures dwell in one Christ without interacting, like two boards glued together. Still others suggested that the two natures combine into something unique, like two liquids blended together to create a drink or a dressing. Some thought that the human nature was something acquired by the Son of God at his incarnation which he can remove at will, leaving it aside when he does not need it, and resuming it when required. Some suggested that the divine nature of Christ so overwhelms his human nature that his human nature must always be controlled by the divine nature; they said that Jesus has one divine will and no human will. By studying the Bible and discussing its message, Christians were able to conclude that all these beliefs are untrue.

Jesus Christ remains one hundred percent God and one hundred percent human, but he also remains one Christ, not two christs. Therefore, anything true about the one nature is true about the entire Christ: the divine nature of Christ experiences humanity, and the human nature of Christ experiences divinity. The test word used at some of these Councils was Theotokos: “Mother of God.” They asked, can Mary the mother of Jesus be called the mother of God, or is she only mother to the human nature? From their study of the Bible, Christians concluded that Mary is rightly called the mother of God, because she gave birth to Christ Jesus, who is fully God as well as fully human.

So if Jesus was hungry, God understands hunger. If Jesus was thirsty, God understands thirst. If Jesus was anxious about what he was about to face, God understands anxiety. And yes, through the human nature of Christ, God experienced suffering and death. Likewise, the human Jesus of Nazareth knows all things, has all power, runs the universe, and has authority to judge all people, because he is the Son of God.

If Jesus was not fully human, his obedience to the Law would be meaningless. God cannot be tempted to sin. God is unchanging, pure, and holy. But the human nature and human will of Jesus were tempted to sin. He resisted temptation, obeyed his Father’s will, and so earned for all sinners the rewards that belong only to those who faithfully obey the entire will of God. If Jesus were not fully human, his death would have been merely a ruse, a trick, meaning nothing. But the human nature of Jesus experienced death; his human soul and human body were separated—the body buried in a garden, the soul committed into the hands of the Father. Any Christian who dies experiences the same separation of body and soul, with the body left on earth and the soul taken to Paradise to await the resurrection.

There are two kinds of death: physical death and spiritual death. Adam was told that the day he ate the forbidden fruit he would die, but Adam lived physically more than nine hundred years after that sin. Adam and Eve died spiritually that day. Their sin created a barrier between them and God, a barrier they could not remove. Jesus died physically, but did he experience spiritual death? Did the barrier caused by all the sins he was bearing on the cross come between him and his Father?

The divine nature of the Son of God cannot be separated from the Father. They are eternal and unchanging, in perpetual fellowship with one another—they are one God. The human nature of Christ can and did face spiritual death. For this reason, Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Some people say that he was praying Psalm 22, and in a sense he was. But Psalm 22 is a vivid prophecy of what happened to Jesus on the cross. His agony at the separation was so deep that it echoed a thousand years into the past to be quoted by David in the Psalm.

As I wrote in my last post, different aspects of the crucifixion reach different people in their needs and in their faith. Some time periods in Church history have gravitated more to one aspect or another of the Passion of our Lord. But none of them is to be rejected. All of them are Biblical, whether their imagery is military or financial or legal. And Christ did indeed bear the burden of our sin and the spiritual death which sin causes, as Paul wrote, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him to be sin who knew no sin [Jesus] so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21). This is an essential part of our salvation, that God loved the world so much that he gave his Son—he even turned his face away from his Son for a time—so that whoever believes in him will not perish but has eternal life (John 3:16). J.

Why the cross?

A year ago I posted the following message about the significance of the cross. Because of an ongoing conversation (which you can find here), it seemed worth repeating. Christians sometimes differ from one another over the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. Those who reach for glory without the cross are mistaken. In this world we need the cross in our lives; only through the cross can we be carried to glory.

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross, beyond his own suffering, bleeding, and dying? The Bible provides several analogies of what Jesus accomplished, explaining it from several points of view. When Christians limit themselves to one analogy and treat it as literally true, they miss the fullness of the gospel message. Moreover, mockers are able to take the analogies literally and extend them beyond the Bible’s intended meaning, twisting the beauty of God’s Word in their mockery.

The most common analogy of the cross is financial. By his suffering and death, Jesus paid the price for sins, rescuing sinners from their debts. The beauty of this analogy is that we understand debt and payment. We understand how our sins place us in debt to God, a debt we cannot pay. Jesus paying in our place is a beautiful image of his love for us. But to whom did he pay the debt? Did he buy us from the devil, or pay his Father for our sins, or purchase redemption from a power higher even than God? Each of these explanations has problems when the analogy is treated literally and left as the only explanation of the cross.

A second common analogy of the cross is military. On the cross Jesus fought a battle against all the forces of evil. These forces include the devil, the sinful world, sins committed by people, and death itself—the ultimate result of sin. Becoming a victim of these enemies, Jesus also defeated them. His resurrection on Easter morning is a declaration of victory, and the Church continues to share that news of victory with sinners who have been enslaved by their sins and by the power of evil. We were prisoners of war in the Great War between God and evil, but the victory of Jesus rescues us from prison and puts us on the winning team.

Yet another analogy of the cross is healing. Through his time on earth, Jesus healed many people, often with just a word or a touch. He never seemed to be harmed by any of his miracles of healing. But in those physical healings, Jesus was simply treating the symptoms of evil. To fully heal the damage caused by sin and evil, Jesus had to bear that damage in his own body. What he endured on the cross gives him the power to heal every consequence of sin and evil: leprosy, blindness, paralysis, and even death. His own suffering and death provides the remedy that reverses all the damage caused in this world by sin and evil.

Still another analogy of the cross is rescuing what was lost. This is why Jesus is called a Savior and Christians describe themselves as saved. C.S. Lewis adapted this metaphor by describing Jesus as a diver who descends to the bottom of a muddy pond to unearth a treasure. The diver becomes thoroughly dirty digging in the bottom of the pond, but when he ascends to the surface he carries his treasure with him. So Jesus humbled himself, obedient to death, even death on the cross, to claim us as his treasure. Though we were buried in sin and evil, Jesus takes us out of the mud through his own suffering and death. In his resurrection, Jesus lifts us also to new life in a perfect new creation.

A similar analogy of the cross is fixing what was broken—which can also be described as reconciling or uniting. Like a shepherd going into the wilderness to find a lost sheep, Jesus comes into this sin-stained world looking for his lost people. He rescues us from the mouth of the wolves. Even in the dark valley of the shadow of death, he finds us and brings us home. We were separated from God by our own rebellion, but Jesus has restored us to the family of God through his expedition into suffering and death.

One more analogy of the cross is adoption. In modern society, the process of adoption is difficult and expensive. In our relationship with God, the process of adoption is even more difficult and expensive. We are not God’s children because he made us. Even if that was once true, it is true no longer. By breaking his commandments, we have forfeited our place in God’s family. Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, personally pays to adopt us into his family. He gives himself as the cost of our adoption so we can be children of God and can pray to the Father of the eternal Son as our Father. Baptism is the personal ceremony by which this adoption is made certain, just as in baptism each Christian dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, and rises again with Christ.

Finally, an analogy of the cross is cheating justice. We broke the rules. We rebelled against God. We declared our independence from God and said that we wanted to be separate from him. Justice would have God say yes to our rebellion. Justice would have God abandon us to our sinful choices. But God’s love is greater than his justice. He allows the world to be unfair. He allows evil people to prosper, and he allows good people to suffer. By letting evil be unfair, God makes it possible for good to be unfair. Now Jesus can suffer in our place so we can be rewarded in his place. Now his Father can abandon him instead of us so he can claim us for his kingdom.

Each of these analogies is true. All of them are supported by the writings of the apostles and prophets. All of them are enacted in the history of God’s people. When we cling to one analogy and neglect the others, we weaken the message of God’s grace and allow mockers room for their opposition. When we see all these analogies as pictures of the cross from different points of view, we begin to comprehend (albeit dimly) the true glory that Jesus revealed by his sacrifice on the cross. J.

With apologies to Lerner & Loewe…

If ever I would leave you
It wouldn’t be in Walmart.
Seeing you in Walmart
I never would go.
Your cart filled with clothing,
Groceries, hardware, and shoes,
They all cost more money
Than I care to lose!

 

But if I’d ever leave you,
It couldn’t be in Target.
How I’d leave in Target
I never will know.
I’ve seen how you sparkle
When sales nip the air.
I know you in Target
And it’s quite a scare.

 

And could I leave you
Spending merrily while at Sears?
With a credit bill
That will not be paid for years?

 

If ever I would leave you,
How could it be in Penney’s?
Knowing how the pennies add up to a lot?
Oh, no! not in Penney’s
Target, Walmart, or Sears!
No, never could I leave you, my dear!

Forgiveness

Why is the concept of forgiveness so difficult for Christians to grasp? On the cross Jesus paid in full for sin. The debt is covered. Christians are called to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us. God’s forgiveness is unlimited, so forgiveness from Christians is unlimited. We do not stop at seven times, or at seventy-seven times, or at seventy-times-seven times. We forgive to the seventy-eleventh time, a number that does not exist, so we can never stop forgiving.

Confusion comes when we use the word “forgive” to cover two distinct actions. One is to forgive silently, “from the heart.” This the Christian is always required to do. There is no revenge from the Christian, no “getting even,” no holding grudges. The other is to absolve, to announce forgiveness. This the Christian does for repentant sinners, but not for unrepentant sinners. Christians do not withhold God’s forgiveness, but they withhold absolution from any sinner who does not want to be forgiven.

To approach an unrepentant sinner with the news, “I still forgive you,” or, “God still forgives you,” is a mistake. It might seem loving and Christian to speak those words; but in those circumstances, those words could be viewed as microaggression. The unrepentant sinner does not want forgiveness, not from the Christian and not from God. The unrepentant sinner loves his or her sin more than he or she loves his or her Savior. Offering unwanted forgiveness cheapens God’s grace; it makes a mockery of the love of God and of the cross of Christ.

When Jesus said, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not cast your pearls before swine,” he was speaking about the announcement of forgiveness. Before we can tell a sinner that his or her debt is paid, we must first inform that sinner of his or her debt. Only when sinners understand the cost of their sin can they also understand the glory of Christ to pay that cost in full. Handing out forgiveness like candy does not glorify the Lord.

But if absolving an unrepentant sinner is bad, casting doubt on the forgiveness of a repentant sinner is far worse. As soon as sinners realize the wickedness of what they have done, they should also be assured that their debt is paid in full. Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient payment to cover any debt; it is more than enough to compensate for all the sins of history. Staying angry, seeking revenge, holding a grudge, or making the sinner pay for the sin is not an option for the Christian. When we cast doubt on the ability of any sin or any sinner to be forgiven, we cast doubt on God’s gift of forgiveness to us as well. God’s forgiveness does not simply flow into the life of a Christian; it flows through that life and into the lives of others.

Jesus said to Peter, “I give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven.” The night after his resurrection, Jesus breathed on all the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; it you withhold forgiveness, it is withheld.” Not just Peter, not just the apostles, not just pastors, but every Christian holds those keys and has that power. Being remade in the image of Christ, we always want to forgive. But as Jesus did not speak words of forgiveness to the stubborn scribes and Pharisees, so we do not absolve unrepentant sinners.

Christians forgive. Forgiveness is found in the Church. The government has no obligation to forgive criminals, not even if they repent of their sins. Indeed, the government must punish criminals for the good of all citizens. The government must restrict chronic abusers and protect vulnerable citizens, even if the abuser has repented and has received Christ’s forgiveness. The ability of the President and governors to pardon criminals should never be mistaken for forgiveness. A pardon ends punishment and sets a criminal free, but forgiveness removes guilt and changes a sinner into a saint. Paradoxically, in this world the Christian remains both sinner and saint, but in God’s eyes the sin has already been removed; the life of a Christian is already pure and blameless and holy in the sight of God.

Forgiveness should be easy to understand and to discuss. Because of the sinner-saint paradox, our eyes and minds are dimmed, and sometimes even forgiveness seems confusing. Each of us can take that confusion to the cross, where we see the price of our sins paid in full, and we know that Christ’s forgiveness belongs to us—and to whoever has sinned against us. J.

Athanasius and the hand of Arsenius

In the fourth century a man lived in Alexandria, in Egypt, whose name was Athanasius. He was a leader in the Church, eventually becoming bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius defended the Christian faith from heretics who wanted to change the Church’s teachings. However, his leadership was controversial, and four times he was expelled from Alexandria by decree of the Emperor.

Alexander was bishop in Alexandria before Athanasius. At that time, a presbyter in the same city, a man named Arius, reasoned his way to a new understanding of God. Arius concluded that only God the Father is eternal and almighty; he taught that the Father created God the Son and then created everything else that exists through the Son. “There was a time,” Arius taught, “when the Son did not exist.” This teaching was condemned by Alexander, but Arius persuaded many Christians to believe his teaching, which led to contention in the Christian Church.

When the Emperor Constantine heard of this trouble, he called for a meeting of Christian leaders to study the Bible and resolve the issue. More than 250 bishops attended (the traditional number is 318, but other numbers are also published), along with other church leaders. Athanasius was at the time the leading deacon from Alexandria, and he was one of the chief speakers at the meeting. After being exhorted by the Emperor to come to an agreement, and after praying and studying the Bible, the meeting produced a statement that described Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” All but two bishops in attendance agreed with this statement, and many Christians still speak these words today when they gather to worship and to learn about God.

When Alexander died, Athanasius was named bishop in Alexandria. But Arius still had many supporters who hated Athanasius. They went to the Emperor, complaining that Athanasius had collected a high tax in Egypt and had given the money to a man plotting to overthrow and replace Constantine as Emperor. Constantine commanded Athanasius to appear before him and questioned him about the charge, but Athanasius was able to prove his innocence. This only angered his enemies further, and they accused Athanasius of other severe crimes. This time Constantine called for a church council; but Athanasius, hearing that the council would be held in Caesarea—where he had many enemies, including the bishop—refused to attend. His enemies used this to persuade Constantine that Athanasius must be guilty of some crime, and so the Emperor called for another council, this time in Tyre, and Athanasius was directly commanded to be present.

In Tyre the enemies of Athanasius presented a woman who claimed that Athanasius had lodged at her house and had raped her. When he arrived, Athanasius entered the meeting accompanied by a friend named Timotheus. When Athanasius was called upon to reply to the charge, he remained silent and Timotheus spoke. He said to the woman, “Have I, O woman, ever conversed with you, or have I entered your house?” She pointed her finger at Timotheus and screamed, “It was you who robbed me of my virginity; it was you who stripped me of my chastity.” Athanasius and Timotheus revealed their rule, and Athanasius was thus vindicated.

The two men wanted to question the woman further to learn who had paid or persuaded her to accuse Athanasius. Before they could do so, however, another charge was raised against Athanasius. His enemies said that he had murdered a bishop named Arsenius, removed his hand, and used it to work magic spells. These opponents had earlier persuaded Arsenius to go into hiding. They even had a box with a mummified hand which they claimed to have taken from Athanasius. Arsenius remained hidden for a while as the rumor was spread about his magical hand, so many people had heard this rumor before the hearing in Tyre. But by this time Arsenius had gotten bored with hiding, had left his hiding place, and had been found and recognized by friends of Athanasius. They therefore spoke up during the council, asking if anyone was present who would recognize Arsenius. Several people said they could, and Arsenius was produced. To add to the suspense, Arsenius was wearing a robe with long sleeves that concealed his hands. Athanasius asked him to show his hands, and Arsenius slowly showed the group first one hand and then the other. Athanasius then asked if Arsenius had a third hand which Athanasius could have stolen from him; the answer, of course, was no.

Even after all this, the enemies of Athanasius further accused him of threatening to cut off the grain shipment from Egypt to Rome. At this charge, Constantine ruled that Athanasius had to be exiled from Alexandria and take up residence in Treves, a city now called Trier, in Germany. This Athanasius did. After Constantine had died (about two years after the sentence exiling Athanasius), his son Constantinus recalled Athanasius, revealing that his father had exiled him, not as punishment, but as protection from his enemies. Athanasius returned to Alexandria, to the great joy of most of the Christians there. But on three more occasions he was exiled by decree of the Emperor. The final occasion, the order was not merely exile, but execution; this order was given by Julian the Apostate. Athanasius found a boat and began traveling by river away from the city. The officer appointed to execute the bishop followed in another boat. Somehow one of the friends of Athanasius got to him and warned him that he was being chased. Athanasius turned his boat around and began to head back toward the city. He approached the boat of the officer, who called to him, asking, “How far off is Athanasius?” “Not far,” the bishop answered. The officer continued the pursuit, and Athanasius returned to the city, where he hid safely until Julian died in battle against the Persians.

Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria for forty-five years, including the seventeen years that he was exiled from the city. He died peacefully in bed in his own home, roughly seventy-five years old. His feast day is observed May 2. J.

The Chicago Cubs will be champions again

Tomorrow afternoon the Chicago Cubs begin their season and their quest for another championship. They will get started in Texas against the Rangers. The roster has not changed much from the crew that won ninety-five games last year but stumbled in the playoffs. The biggest difference is that the players are healthier now, and they are determined to make their fans forget about last year by winning it all this year.

My parents were die-hard Cubs fans, and it was natural for me to follow in their footsteps. We listened to games on the radio back when the announcers were Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau. (My father was not fond of Jack Brickhouse, the television announcer.) I vividly remember the Cubs of 1969: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins—they even had a pair of pitchers whose names were Hands and Fingers. The ’69 Cubs were far ahead of the competition all season, only to be overtaken by the Miracle Mets in September. Many people in Chicago joked that the Cubs were going to move to the Philippines and call themselves the Manila Folders.

Gradually in the 1970s the Cubs lineup changed, as all professional sports teams must do. Players came and went: Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Bill Madlock, Rick Reuschel, Bobby Murcer, and Dave Kingman. Although they started some seasons strongly, the Cubs never put together enough wins to enter the playoffs in the 1970s or at the start of the 1980s.

This changed in 1984. Dallas Greene had been named General Manager of the Cubs, and he pulled together a championship-caliber team. He exchanged shortstops with the Philadelphia Phillies and persuaded them to toss in a young infielder, future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Greene traded for starting pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Rick Suttcliffe, and the Cubs won the National League East Division. They were favored over the San Diego Padres, winners of the West Division; but after winning the first two games in Chicago, the Cubs lost three straight in San Diego, coming from an early lead to fall behind in each game.

The Cubs were expected to do well again in 1985, but injuries to their starting pitchers triggered a losing streak in May from which they never recovered. They returned to the playoffs in 1989 but were handled by the San Francisco Giants, who were on their way to an earthquake-interrupted World Series against Oakland. In 1994 the Cubs earned a Wild Card berth in a season that included record-level home run prowess from the Cub’s Sammy Sosa and the St. Louis Cardinal’s Mark McGuire, but they were beaten in the playoffs by the Atlanta Braves.

Hopes were high in 2003 when the Cubs won the National League Central Division. For the first time since baseball’s playoffs involved more than the World Series, the Cubs won a playoff series, beating the Atlanta Braves. The Miami Marlins were the Cubs’ next opponent. The Cubs were five outs away from earning the National League Pennant and a trip to the World Series in game six, played in Chicago, when the wheels fell off the cart. Surrendering eight runs in a disastrous eighth inning, the Cubs lost game six, the Cubs went on to lose game seven the next night, ending their championship hopes. They returned to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 but failed to win a single playoff game either year.

In 2011 the Cubs organization hired Theo Epstein to handle the structure of the team. He came with a plan, warning fans that it would take several years to bear fruit. Before the 2015 season, Epstein hired Joe Madden to manage the Cubs and then signed free agent pitcher Jon Lester. The team came together during the course of the summer and won enough games to be one of the two National League Wild Card teams. The Cubs beat the Pittsburg Pirates in the single Wild Card game, then went on to beat the Cardinals before being swept for the pennant in four games by the New York Mets.

The year 2016 was magic for Cubs fans. The team dominated baseball all season, winning the division by a clear margin. In the National League playoffs they outperformed the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, bringing the first National League Pennant to Chicago since 1945. In the World Series they faced the Cleveland Indians. Trailing three games to one, the Cubs roared back to force a dramatic game seven in Cleveland in November. Despite several puzzling moves by Joe Madden, the Cubs jumped out to a five point lead. Four outs away from a championship, the Cubs allowed the Indians to tie the score. After nine innings the score was still tied. A rain delay allowed the Cubs to regroup, and they scored two runs in the top of the tenth. Although they allowed one run in the bottom of the inning, the Cubs managed to procure the final out. Early in the morning of November 3, 2016, the Cubs were finally world champions. Their previous championship had come in 1908, exactly 108 years earlier. There are 108 stitches in a baseball.

The Cubs returned to the playoffs in 2017, overcoming the Washington Nationals in a hard-fought series before bowing to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2018 the Cubs won 95 games but were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers atop the Central Division. Losing a single tie-breaking game to the Brewers in Chicago, the Cubs lost again the next night in a Wild Card game against the Colorado Rockies. This led to a long winter of discontent and a spring full of hope that this is the year the Cubs will return to their champion ways. J.

Must be March Madness

Most Sunday mornings find me in a small congregation south of town. When I say “small,” I mean that a good Sunday has an attendance in the low double digits. But the congregation survives for two reasons: their preacher is a part-time pastor who has a full-time job downtown (benefits such as health insurance included); and the congregation rents out the building when they aren’t using it. On Friday nights Alcoholics Anonymous meets there, and on Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons a Spanish-speaking congregation of a different denomination has services and classes there.

When I arrived this morning, I saw that the power company was doing repairs down the road, and they had parked their trailer with equipment and parts on the church parking lot, taking up about four spaces. That seemed rather thoughtless, what with it being Sunday and all, but we worked around it.

Then, when we got inside, we saw that the other congregation’s praise band had forgotten to put away their equipment after practicing on Saturday. They’ve left a few things out from time to time, but never the entire set-up. So three of us got busy and packed away all their instruments and equipment in the side room where they belong, and our service still started on time.

We decided that the cause of all this equipment in our way must be March Madness.

This afternoon a U-Haul van stopped in front of the house. Soon an Amazon deliveryman was carrying three boxes to the door—a small one, a medium one, and a large one. When I met him at the door, he warned me they were heavy; and they were heavy. Together they contained twenty copies of my novel, I Remember Amy, which has just been published.

They are huge, about 450 pages, and when I opened one I saw why. When I submitted the text, I inadvertently had left it double-spaced. Remember, I wrote the first draft seven years ago. I had double-spaced it then to print a copy and edit it by hand. So now I have a simple novel that, from the outside, looks like it ought to rival War and Peace. I was able, this afternoon, to correct the spacing and resubmit the text, cutting the size of the book in half. I also dropped the price to twelve dollars. (The Kindle version is still four dollars.) But the first people to receive free copies of the book will no doubt be daunted by its size. Honestly, I’ve seen phone books smaller than this edition of the novel.

So, that’s my March Madness story for this morning. I hope each of you is doing well and that all your teams are winning. J.

Let’s talk about the Golan Heights

“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability,” President Trump tweeted earlier this week. As with everything else the President has said and done over the past two years, Trump has been greatly criticized for those words. But is he right or wrong in what he tweeted, and how much does it matter?

Golan is mentioned four times in the Bible. It is in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan River. Under Moses the Israelites captured Bashan, and the land was allotted to the tribe of Manasseh. Golan was designated a city of refuge, where a person guilty of manslaughter (but not of murder) could live in safety according to God’s law.

As the kingdom of Aram (ancient Syria) grew in strength, the Golan Heights became contested territory between Aram and Israel. Even before the development of modern weapons, the Heights had significant strategic military value. Like much of western Asia, the land eventually became part of the Assyrian Empire, then moved through the hands of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Eventually the land was captured by Muslims, under whom it was ruled first from Baghdad, then from Egypt, and finally from the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart after the First World War, Syria (including Golan) was made a French protectorate, although the British seem to have been more involved than the French in developing the modern state of Syria. The country first declared its independence in 1941, but over the next thirty years several Syrian governments rose and fell before the Assad family rose to power in the 1970s.

After World War II, European governments gradually gave full independence to their Asian protectorates. The British divided the land along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Palestine, basing ownership of each section upon whether the residents were primarily Jewish or Muslim. (They had previously done a similar division of land between India and Pakistan, based on whether the residents were primarily Hindu or Muslim. Neither division has worked well for the residents of those countries.) Almost immediately war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. The result of that war was the end of Palestine as an independent nation: some parts were captured and claimed by Israel, and other parts were assimilated by Jordan. In 1967, almost twenty years later, a second war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. During that war, Israel captured two-thirds of the Golan Heights, recognizing their strategic value. After a third war in 1973, Israel and Syria were persuaded to negotiate their borders in the Golan Heights region and elsewhere. The negotiations, overseen by American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, involved a detailed study of the region. Kissinger spent nearly the entire month of May 1974 working with both governments. He describes the process as “grueling,” adding that “the long shuttle produced an accord that, with all its inherent complexity, fragility, and mistrust, has endured….”

Shortly after he wrote those words, in 1981 Israel announced that it was annexing its occupied portion of the Golan Heights. Syria protested, and the United Nations deemed the annexation null and void, without international legal effect. Until this week, all people speaking for the United States government on this topic have agreed with the United Nations ruling.

The involvement of the United States in the wars of 1967 was largely—but not entirely—conducted with an eye aimed at the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States was one of the first nations to recognize Israel in 1948, and the Soviets tried to draw Muslim countries in Asia and north Africa into the Soviet sphere of influence. Syria and Egypt particularly benefited from Soviet military equipment and advisors. When they nearly overwhelmed Israel’s forces in 1973, President Nixon did all he could to resupply Israel. One result of his action was an Arab boycott of petroleum sold to the United States and its allies, followed by a massive increase in the price of petroleum. This threw the United States into an inflationary recession for the rest of the decade. But Israel survived the war, and shortly thereafter Egypt threw out Soviet advisors and welcomed the United States as an ally.

The Iranian revolution of 1978 demonstrated that more is involved in foreign relations than a cold war between two superpowers, as the new government in Iran was equally opposed to both the United States and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991; but terrorist attacks on the United States ten years afterward demonstrated that America still had powerful and determined enemies. In response, President Bush announced a war on terror, one which included attacks upon Afghanistan and Iraq. The primary goals of those attacks were to confront terrorists on their home ground and to eliminate their access to weapons of mass destruction. Another hope was that governments could be established in those countries that would include western values of freedom and democracy. It must be noted that Israel, during all these years, remained the only true democracy in the region; all its neighbors, even allies of the United States, were under dictatorships.

Years later, while the United States was still struggling to build democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, citizens of Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets and effectively overthrew their dictators. In what was being called the Arab Spring, it seemed at first that a wave of freedom was moving through the Muslim world. When the people of Libya rose against their dictator, Khadafi used his armed forces to try to remain in control. In response, the United States intervened with military force to keep Khadafi from killing his own people, and he was overthrown and killed. Assad in Syria seemed to be the next tyrant to topple, but the United States did not help the people of Syria as it had helped the people of Libya. Even when it was demonstrated that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons against citizens, they received from the United States little more than a frown and a scolding.

What makes Syria different? One difference is that Assad has maintained ties to Russia in spite of the change in government there since the 1970s. Vladimir Putin does not want the Russian people to hear of dictators being overthrown, so he has provided much support and help to Assad’s government in Syria. While the United States under Barack Obama temporized over Syria, pro-American forces were weakened and an Islamic State was declared. Problems also arose in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as western freedom and democracy did not emerge as expected.

Donald Trump promised that he was going to do things differently. He showed this after the election but before his inauguration when he spoke with the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Ever since Mao’s revolution in the 1940s, American leaders and diplomats have joined the rest of the world in maintaining the fiction that China is one country and has only one legitimate government. From Truman to Nixon, the Communist government was treated by the United States as the illegitimate government, but Nixon opened communication with the Communists, and President Carter recognized the Communist government as legitimate. (All American Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, have made it clear to the Communists that a military taking of Taiwan would not be permitted.) President Reagan once spoke of “two Chinas,” but backpedaled from that position. Not speaking to the President of Taiwan was part of that diplomatic fiction which Trump chose to eschew.

Now he has recognized the reality that the Golan Heights belong to Israel and not to Syria, something which has been practically the case since 1981 (and since the occupation of the Heights began during the 1967 war, fifty-two years ago). As he does on many matters, President Trump has openly recognized reality rather than clinging to polite fictions. After all, the United States has no reason to appease Syria; its government is no friend of our government. Describing reality in blunt terms sometimes is the beginning of solving problems between nations. About the only reason to protest Trump’s statement about the Golan Heights is the reflex assumption some people make that, if Trump did it, it must be wrong. J.