Trinity Sunday, part two

In my last post, I mentioned the First Article (belief in God the Father and the work of creation), the Second Article (belief in Jesus the Son of God and in the work of redemption), and the Third Article (belief in God the Holy Spirit and the work of sanctification). Today I want to apply these three Articles to the way Christians worship, especially to the songs Christians sing.

Many songs of praise honor God the Creator and speak of how all creation sings to him. Some groups of Christians sing nothing but praise songs when they gather to worship God. Songs of praise are entirely appropriate for Christians to sing. The night Jesus was born angels sang a praise song in the sky over Bethlehem. Many of the Psalms are songs of praise. However, limiting worship to songs of praise is not healthy for Christians. Worshiping God with songs of praise, and nothing but songs of praise, is like caring for the body with a diet of sugars and fats, lacking in proteins, vitamins, and minerals.

Many of the Psalms speak of the work of redemption. Psalm writers confessed their sins and their need for forgiveness. They spoke of God’s enemies and of the war between God and evil. They looked to God for victory in that war. They thanked God, not merely for the wonders of creation, but for his mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

Too many times I have sat through a service in a Christian Church that made little or no mention of the redeeming work of Jesus. The songs might describe him as Redeemer or Savior, but they failed to explain what those labels mean. They omit mention of our sins and our need for a Savior. They omit mention of the fact that we cannot save ourselves, that we desperately need God to save us. When the preaching also omits these themes, merely entertaining the audience or calling Christians to holy living, then the one set of Truths that distinguishes Christians from the rest of the world is missing.

Every hymn and Christian song does not to include all three Articles. During the course of a Christian service, though, all three should be remembered. At least one hymn and one prayer should acknowledge the sinfulness of the people gathered there and should remember the work Jesus accomplished to change us from sinners to saints. Even a song about the cross is not enough unless it is clearly linked to the problem of sin and the answer of the Savior. Likewise, every hymn and every sermon does not need to mention the work of the Holy Spirit, but Christians should know that there is a Holy Spirit. They should know that he is working in the service, using the Word of God to deliver grace and forgiveness to every believer. They ways in which he does this should be mentioned at least once in a while.

Many Christians want their worship to be uplifting. They want to feel good when they leave the service. A string of songs celebrating God and his creation might accomplish that need that they feel, but it leaves their deeper needs unmet. To be gathered in the name of Jesus means more than to say his name every few minutes. The men that fixed my roof last summer spoke his name often, but not as praise or prayer. We acknowledge him as Redeemer and as Savior, which means that we describe what he has done to redeem and to save his people. This message distinguishes us from the rest of the world and marks us as God’s holy people.

J.

Advertisements

Trinity Sunday, part one

Trinity Sunday—a long-standing tradition in the Christian Church—is observed one week after Pentecost Sunday. On Pentecost, Christians remember the work of the Holy Spirit in the world and in the church. On Trinity Sunday, Christians contemplate the mystery that the one God is three Persons and that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are one God.

In a future post I will write more about this theological mystery. On this occasion, I want only to address a part of that reality—the way the three Persons of the one God deal with Christians. Over the ages, Christians have tended to model theology with reference to these three Persons. From the earliest creeds of the Church to the most recent volumes of systematic theology, references are made to God the Father and his work of creation, to God the Son and his work of redemption, and to God the Holy Spirit and his work of sanctification.

Even this traditional way of talking about God can be misleading, since it tends to support the idea that the three Persons are three gods, not one God. This confusion is reversed by realizing that the three Persons do not act alone—all three are involved in creation, in redemption, and in sanctification. For example, God the Father is often called the Creator, but the first chapter of John’s Gospel and the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians both specifically state that Jesus the Son of God was intimately involved in creation. The second verse of the Bible says that God the Holy Spirit was involved in creation.

Likewise, while only the Son of God became human, lived according to the Law of God, died on a cross, and rose again from the dead, all three Persons of the one God are involved in redemption. God the Father planned the redeeming work of his Son and sent him to do that work, and God the Holy Spirit guided him in that work. Moreover, the Father and the Son are involved in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit grants the gift of faith, but when Peter confessed his faith, Jesus told him that his faith came from God the Father (Matthew 16:15-17). Jesus also promised that he would send the Holy Spirit to his followers, and on occasion God the Holy Spirit is described as the Spirit of Jesus.

Does it matter which Person of God does which work in the world? It matters mostly that Christians understand that the work of Jesus was not his work alone but is the work of all three Persons of the Triune God. Trinity Sunday reminds us of the unity of the one God and the unity of all the work he does.

I have one more observation to make about the Holy Trinity, and this observation will lead into tomorrow’s blog. When religious people consider God the Father and the work of creation, many people can agree on this aspect of God. Jews, Muslims, and Christians of many kinds all agree that there is one God and that he created heaven and earth and everything that exists. The First Article (belief in God the Father and the work of creation) unites many religious people.

Jews and Muslims and some who call themselves Christian do not believe in God the Son. They consider Jesus a prophet and a teacher (or else a myth or a fraud), and they deny that he is the only-begotten Son of God. For most Christians, faith in Jesus separates their religion from the other religions of the world. The Second Article (belief in Jesus the Son of God and in the work of redemption) unites Christians and distinguishes them from other religious people.

Christians are largely divided about the work of the Holy Spirit. Some expect him to regularly perform the miracles he performed in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Others expect him simply to create faith in the Christian’s heart and to guide that believer in Christian living. Some groups of Christians hardly speak at all of the Holy Spirit. The Third Article (belief in God the Holy Spirit and the work of sanctification) divides Christians more than any other differences.

More about this tomorrow.

J.

What if nothing is wrong?

For many years I tried to convince myself that there is no problem in my life I cannot handle with God’s help. Do I have negative feelings? Virtue is the ability to ignore feelings and to do what is right in spite of feelings. Do little things bother me more than they should? I may have a short temper, but with the virtue of self-control I can swallow my anger and not act inappropriately in public.

Unfortunately, I am not Spock. After a trying two years, I finally told my family doctor how I really feel. Now for several months I have been taking anti-depressants and seeing a counselor. For the first time I am starting to see that those fits of anger—which made me want to rave like Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers—were actually attacks of anxiety. For the first time I am starting to accept that depression is not a normal part of life that every person handles his or her own way.

Even as I accept this help and try to make progress, though, my anxious mind says to me, “You only think you have problems. You’ve heard of anxiety and depression and you have become a hypochondriac. You are merely pretending to need help because of the attention it draws to you, and because now you have excuses to misbehave.”

Moreover, my anxious mind tells me, “Other people really have these problems that you only think you have. They cannot handle situations where you are able to swallow your fear or your anger and move forward. You are taking up the time of professional people who should be free to help the people who really need their help.”

Fortunately, the Vulcan half of my mind is able to respond to this thought. “Is it normal to pretend to have problems? Is it normal to seek help when one is not sick? If one imagines one has problems and needs help, is it not true that one has problems and needs help?”

Some people imagine an angel and a demon sitting on their two shoulders whispering into their two ears, one urging good behavior and one suggesting bad behavior. As I write this post, I suddenly picture myself with Mr. Spock at one shoulder and Basil Fawlty at the other shoulder, each telling me I should be more like them.

In this blog I have not requested comments before, but I would appreciate some input on this question: Am I the only person with mental or emotional distress who thinks I might be faking my problems? Am I the only one who feels guilty for seeking help, as if the help I seek is something I don’t really need? I very much desire some sense of how common this experience is. (The comment box is way, way down at the bottom of the screen.)

J.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, the fourth Monday of May, has become for Americans the social start to summer. Memorial Day weekend inspires thoughts of cook-outs, concerts, and other outings. Along the way, many Americans seem to have forgotten what it is we want to remember when we observe Memorial Day.

Memorial Day began to be observed shortly after the end of the Civil War, when battle survivors and families and friends of soldiers wanted to recall and honor those who had lost their lives on the battlefield during the four years of conflict between the states. Gradually, May 30 became the date when time was set aside to honor the memory of these soldiers. Ceremonies were held on battlefields and in cemeteries, and many people referred to the day as Decoration Day because of the custom of decorating the graves of soldiers who had died during the war.

After the United States fought a brief war with Spain and then became involved in two World Wars, the meaning of Memorial Day was expanded to cover all the wars and military actions in which American soldiers lost their lives. When I was in high school, May 30 was a holiday (the last weekday off before final exams and graduation), but the high school band did not get a vacation. We marched in a parade to the cemetery, where music was played and speeches were given and guns were fired to honor the soldiers buried there. Later, the government of the United States moved Memorial Day from May 30 to the fourth Monday in May, providing a three-day weekend which has, in some ways, become a distraction from the real meaning of the day.

War is a controversial subject, and many Americans are reluctant to observe all the wars in which American soldiers have fought. In general, though, our soldiers deserve our thanks. Pearl Harbor and 9-11 stand out in our national memory because the United States has been attacked so rarely by its enemies. This is due, in part, to the diligence of the men and women who have served in our armed forces, often risking their lives, and sometimes losing their lives, so we can be kept safe.

Other countries have also been defended by their soldiers who also risked their lives and lost their lives for the safety of their citizens. Those countries have their own ways of honoring their soldiers. For Americans, this weekend is a time to take a break from work or school and to enjoy outdoors activities, but it is also a time to fly the American flag, to remember the soldiers who have served our country, and to be grateful for their sacrifice. May we never forget!

J.

If I won the lottery

What they say is true: you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. I bought a lottery ticket once to use as a visual device for a lesson at church; we were talking about coveting and about contentment. God could have made a good joke from my lesson by making that ticket a winning ticket, but in his infinite wisdom he chose not to make me a millionaire. I can still dream, though, that someone buys me a lottery ticket as a joke and it wins the big prize, or that I pick up a scrap of paper in the grocery store parking lot and it turns out to be a winning lottery ticket.

What would I do if I won the lottery? For convenience, we will assume that the prize that week was one hundred million dollars. Instead of accepting the full prize over twenty years, I would ask for the smaller immediate pay-out (Why be greedy, right?) which is about half the total prize. Then federal and state income taxes would claim roughly half of that prize. If I won one hundred million dollars, then, I would have about twenty-five million dollars to spend. Here are a dozen things I would do with that money.

Ten percent would go to churches and to charity. To prevent a large gift of unexpected money to any one place, and the problems that kind of gift can cause, I would limit each gift to fifty thousand dollars, giving me the opportunity to help fifty different groups. I would start with congregations that have been important to me over the years, places where I have worshiped and places where I have benefited from their ministries. I would also support charitable work and mission work through certain organizations in the church. In addition, I would give gifts to museums, libraries, and fine arts organizations like the local symphony orchestra. I would support public television and public radio. I would send a gift to my alma mater. What I would not do is start supporting charities about which I know nothing; and I would not give a gift to some organization that started asking me for money after I won the lottery.

Next I would pay off my current debt, which seems large compared to my annual income but would be rather small compared to twenty-five million dollars.

Afterward, I would set aside $250,000 for each of my children, my nieces, and my nephews. I have chosen that amount very carefully; it is more than enough to get them through higher education (or to pay off their student loans), but not so much that they could drop out of life and not work at a productive job. Until each of them turned thirty, the money would be in a trust. Certain expenses would automatically be approved: student loans, tuition, room, board, and fees at a college or university, and other normal living expenses for a college student, including buying and operating a car. The trust money might also be available for medical expenses, if necessary. Otherwise, the rest of the money would not be theirs until they have begun a fruitful life as an adult.

After all that, I still have twenty million dollars left. I would give half a million dollars to my parents, to help them with their retirement years. Then, before spending money on things I want right now, I would set aside money for my future. I would put two million dollars in a low-risk investment, designed to deposit one thousand dollars in my checking account every Monday. Yes, I would be spending the principal of that investment. On the other hand, I would draw a salary of fifty-two thousand dollars a year, and the fund should last for the next forty years. I would create another account, perhaps half a million dollars, to cover my health insurance and other medical expenses. That also should last at least forty years.

I would set aside $200,000 to replace the family vehicles; that should be more than enough to provide reliable vehicles to replace our aging fleet. I would also spend up to $100,000 to make improvements to our house—flooring, wall-paper, maybe new windows and doors. I wouldn’t want to waste too much money on this house, though, because I want to buy a new house.

I would willingly spend one million dollars to buy a larger house with features that shelter me from the noise of the neighbors. (No more Mrs. Dim!) The house would have enough rooms, beyond the bedrooms and kitchen and dining room and living room, that one room could be for television and video games and jigsaw puzzles, another for musical instruments and recording, another as a library, another as a study, a place someone in the house for woodworking, and a guest bedroom or two. The property would have more flower gardens than lawn, and the house would have porches for spring and fall to enjoy the outdoor weather.

At this point I have managed to spend a little less than ten million of my twenty-five million dollars. What should I do with the other fifteen million dollars? I would set aside one million dollars for a new business to provide needed services and employ other people. One idea I have for a business is a lawn care service that does not use loud machines. Workers would use rakes and quiet mowers and trimming devices—no blowers or loud gasoline engines. I would pay them a little more than the competition and would charge customers a little less, since expenses would be lower given the equipment we would use. If we haul leaves and clippings away, I would find a property where they could be mulched, and then my company could sell mulch to our clients. If someone else likes this idea and wants to start this company, you have my permission. You don’t even need to give me credit or pay a commission for the idea. (I was going to call it Stealth Lawn Care. Feel free to use the name or to change it.)

I am aware of a building project that has closed down due to lack of funds. I don’t want to be specific about this project, but if I won the lottery I would commit up to one million dollars to get it moving again. Whether I became a partner of the original planners or bought them out does not matter; I simply want to see this project come back to life.

For one to three million dollars, I could endow a professor’s chair, either at my alma mater, or at a local college. I would not want the endowment to be named for me—it could be named for someone who has effectively taught at the college—but I would like to support higher education in that manner.

Finally, I would like to get involved in help for the poor and homeless in the area, beyond just giving fifty thousand dollars to some organization. I would like to spend two million dollars or more providing facilities to help the poor and homeless—overnight shelters; and daytime shelters where they could take a shower, wash their clothes, and simply rest somewhere other than the streets. I would encourage a doctor and a dentist to volunteer a few hours one day a week to help the people who come into the daytime shelter. More than that, I would like to begin a business that could provide work for the poor and homeless. I’m uncertain about what kind of work it would be—maybe assembly of machine parts, or sewing a line of clothing—but it would provide work and income for these people. Perhaps the workplace, daytime shelter, and overnight shelter could be linked, along with meals and medical care that they could purchase with the money earned from their work. Tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs would be banned from all these facilities. Oddly, some ventures of this sort have turned into cults and have abused the people they were trying to help. I would establish a board of directors to make sure this did not happen in my organization. Religious counseling and services would be provided, but we would go great lengths to make sure that they remained legitimate and helpful.

After all this, I still have nearly ten million dollars to spend, and I have no fresh ideas to offer. I suppose I could put more than two million dollars into the help to the poor, or I could start up more than one business, or I could endow chairs at more than one college. The point is, though, that I cannot even imagine spending this kind of money if I had it. I don’t know why the Lord has chosen not to give me a winning lottery ticket. I cannot see anything that I want to do being objectionable to him. All the same, I have to trust that he knows what is best for me; and I should do the best I can with what I have.

J.

“Don’t Worry,” he says

Christians know that Jesus told us not to worry. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-26, NIV)

Some Christians treat these words of Jesus as the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not worry. They remind each other that Jesus told us not to worry. They try to hide from themselves the fact that they sometimes worry, or else they feel guilty and confess that they have been worried. This worrying turns into a vicious spiral: first one is worried about something, then one worries about worrying, and soon one worries about worrying about worrying.

For Christians afflicted with anxiety, this vicious cycle occurs far too easily. Reminding an anxious person that Jesus says “Don’t worry” only adds to the anxiety—there’s one more thing I’m doing wrong. Telling an anxious Christian to “pray about their problems and trust God” only adds to the guilt and anxiety. As long as the words of Jesus are treated as commands, our efforts not to worry are likely to drive us deeper into anxiety and despair.

Jesus did not mean to be understood in this way. He meant his words to be a promise, not a warning. He told us not to worry because we do not need to worry. God has already solved all our problems. God is taking care of us, whether we can see his care or not. God will not abandon us to our problems, even if we do worry or do break his commands. The forgiveness of Jesus overcomes all our disobedience and all our shortcomings.

Consider this analogy: a man and woman have been married for a year or two. They both work, and they take turns fixing dinner. On the morning of his birthday, knowing that it is his wife’s turn to make dinner, he asks her, “What dinner have you planned for tonight?” She replies, “Don’t worry about it.” Do you think that she means those words as a threat? If somehow she finds out that he has been worrying about dinner, is she going to refuse to serve him dinner? Of course not. When she says “Don’t worry about it,” she is promising that she has all things under control. She will have a dinner ready for him. If she says “Don’t worry about it” instead of describing what she has planned, she probably wants to surprise him with a special dinner on his birthday.

In the same way, when Jesus says “Don’t worry,” he is not warning to punish any person he finds worrying. Of course we cannot make our lives longer by worrying; worrying probably shortens our lives. At the very least, it reduces the quality of our lives. However, worrying about worrying gets us nowhere. Jesus does not want anyone to worry about worrying. He wants us to approach life with confidence, knowing that he is in control and he will not let us down. Even if we struggle with worries and anxiety, Jesus does not give up on us. When we fall, he picks us up and puts us back on our feet. When we do wrong, he forgives us because of what Jesus has done for us. When we worry—and everybody sometimes worries—he says, “You don’t need to worry.” We can stop worrying about our worrying, because Jesus really doesn’t have a problem with our worries.

“Cast your cares on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5:7). Again, this is a promise, not a command. God does care about each of us. He is big enough to handle all our worries, even all our anxiety. The last thing Jesus wants any of us to do is to worry about our worries.

J.

Doctor Who

Chances are that either you know who Doctor Who is or you don’t care. Aside from commenting that Doctor Who is a British science fiction television show that has been broadcast, off and on, since 1963, I don’t feel the need to offer a long description and explanation of the show.

The first time I saw Doctor Who on television was New Year’s Eve. I’m not sure of the year, but it was some time around 1980. My parents were out for the evening, I was home alone and bored, so I turned on the television to see what was showing. I joined an episode called “The Pirate Planet” in progress. That episode was a good introduction to Doctor Who, although it took me a while to figure out what was happening, particularly since I was assembling a jigsaw puzzle while watching the show.

A few weeks later my parents and I found the show again and made a habit of watching. Channel 11 showed Doctor Who on Sunday nights. They took the original four-part shows and edited them together into a single movie without interruption. The episodes were broadcast in Chicago several years after they were originally shown on BBC. Like many other Americans, I was familiar with the fourth doctor before I understood that three other actors had played the Doctor before Tom Baker.

The Doctor traveled in a Tardis (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) which could take him to the past, present, or future of any planet. Sometimes he planned his trips; more often he was drawn off course or trusted to random traveling. Most of the time, he saved a planet or the entire universe from certain destruction. The Doctor was a renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, but most Time Lords did not interfere with the course of history on other worlds. In this the Doctor was different.

He had recurring enemies, of course: the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master (another Time Lord), among others. He had companions for most of his adventures, sometimes from Earth and sometimes from other planets—sometimes even another Time Lord from Gallifrey. The scenes and costumes and special effects were not the point of the show. Writers presented interesting situations, and the actors conveyed the story to the audience. Occasionally the Doctor was injured in a way from which even he could not recover. At such times, he would regenerate, moving the same abilities and memories into a new body with a new face (which allowed different actors to portray the Doctor over the years).

Tom Baker played the Doctor in more episodes than any other actor. Moreover, he is the first actor portraying the Doctor that many of us experienced. Of the first seven actors who played the Doctor, he is perhaps remembered with the greatest fondness. All things must come to an end, though, and by the end of the 1980s, Doctor Who had been canceled by the BBC.

Doctor Who, like the American show Star Trek, had too many fans to die a peaceful death. Episodes continued to be rebroadcast and were sold on VHS and then on DVD. Whovians gathered in conventions. Some wrote novels based on the characters in the show. One movie-length episode was created and broadcast with an eighth actor playing the Doctor. Only in the 21st century, though, did the BBC begin creating new episodes of its most famous science fiction show.

Over seven years three more actors portrayed the Doctor. New companions were introduced, new enemies were invented, and some of the old villains returned. Modern technology allowed for spectacular special effects. Scripts were designed to carry story arcs across an entire season, with resolution of the larger story sometimes not even happening at the end of a season.

For a while I watched the New Who, but it never had for me the charm of the earlier version. Some of the stories, especially those involving the companions of the Doctor, carried too much emotional drama and too little adventure to suit my tastes. The use of special effects often seemed to obscure the actors and scripts instead of helping them. Some of the adventures were memorable—“Blink” is one of my favorites—but many were not memorable. I gave up the habit of watching before David Tennant’s time was through, and I never got to know Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor.

All that changed with the fiftieth anniversary episode. While it managed to keep everything that was good of the New Who episodes, it also restored the magic of the original show. Based on my delight in the anniversary episode, I began back-tracking to learn about Clara, and I waited eagerly for the Peter Capaldi era to begin. When the eighth season began, I quickly found it a mixed bag. Peter Capaldi firmly convinced me that he is the Doctor—more about that in a moment—and Clara remains one of my favorite companions from all fifty years. Yet many of the scripts left much to be desired. Even as I wait for season nine of the New Who to be broadcast, I remain faithful in my preference for the earlier Doctor Who.

Of the actors who have played the Doctor, I have my favorites, as is the case for most Whovians. Tied for fourth, in my opinion, are David Tennant of the New Who and Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor. A solid third place is Peter Capaldi, the most recent Doctor. My second favorite Doctor is John Hurt, who played the War Doctor in the fiftieth anniversary special. Top honors go, of course, to Tom Baker, who will always be the first to come to my mind whenever I think of Doctor Who.

J.

Mrs. Dim blows away

Mrs. Dim loves her leaf-blower. She could happily run it all day. Some days it seems as if she does. In back of her house she has a small concrete patio, no bigger than the average bathroom. On a typical morning she spends twenty minutes blowing leaves and dust off her small patio. The blowing takes longer if it has recently rained, because she has to dry the leaves with the blower before they will blow off the patio.

I have thought about sneaking over to her back yard some time when she is not home and stenciling a leaf or two on her concrete patio. It sounds like a good prank at first, but I know that I would be the one to suffer. Mrs. Dim probably would stand there all day blowing at the leaves that won’t go away. And she would probably enjoy it.

When she is not blowing leaves off her patio, Mrs. Dim also takes good care of her lawn. First she mows, and then she trims, and then she blows the cut grass around the yard. Sometimes she also edges her lawn. All four machines—mower, trimmer, blower, and edger—are gasoline powered engines that make a lot of noise. Mrs. Dim likes noise. Perhaps all these noisy tools give her a sense of power. Perhaps they remind her of her husband, who used to do all this work. Perhaps they give her a way of measuring what she has accomplished. When she blows her deck clean of leaves and dust, then mows her lawn and trims and edges and blows the grass around, then gets a power tool to trim the bushes next to her house, then blows the trimmed ends of the branches, Mrs. Dim can fill an entire day with noise.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while might have noticed that I have a problem with noise. When I was a little boy, when the electric company trimmed the trees near the power lines and ground the cut branches, I ran through the house screaming in pain. Fire crackers around Independence Day could provoke a similar fit if the noise was frequent and nearby. I’m not sure why I love the Fourth of July so much, since it provokes painful memories, from the fire trucks with their sirens in the parade to the fireworks at the fairground that night. I have always been sensitive to noise.

I don’t dislike all sounds. I like to hear birds singing. I like the chirping of crickets and tree frogs. I like the sound of distant thunder and the rhythm of the falling rain. I like music (Gregorian chant, medieval madrigals, church chorales, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mahler, Wagner, Elvis, Beach Boys, Beatles, Moody Blues, Chicago, Cars, Police—the list goes on and on), although I’d rather listen to music than treat it as background noise. For me there is no background noise. There are sounds I want to hear and sounds I do not want to hear, and that pretty well covers all sounds.

I doubt Mrs. Dim knows how sounds affect me. If she knew, I doubt she would care. The appearance of her lawn, and of her small concrete patio, mean more to her than anything else in life. Or so it seems; I have never discussed religion with Mrs. Dim. I just do my best to survive those times when she is busy blowing away at her patio.

J.

Magical thinking and sports superstitions

[Note: this post was written a few days ago, but I waited to post it because I did not want to jinx my team.]

The phrase “magical thinking” has slightly different meanings when it is used in different contexts. In the context of mental and emotional health, magical thinking is a symptom of various disorders, including OCD. A person who expects things to change just because of thoughts in that person’s head or actions that person does, in spite of the fact that there is no connection between the thoughts or actions and the expected change, is subject to magical thinking. Let me add two thoughts to this paragraph. First, I am not an expert in psychology, and other people can explain this symptom better than I can. Second, I am in no way mocking anyone suffering from a disorder that includes magical thinking. What I am writing is sincere, and it is largely based on observing my own thoughts and actions.

In the sports world, many athletes have customs so ingrained that they are considered superstitious. Some pitchers, for example, will be careful to enter and leave the baseball field jumping over the chalk line instead of stepping on it. Some batters will continue to wear the same socks every game as long as they are in a hitting streak. It is considered bad luck to talk to a pitcher who is pitching so well that the other team has not gotten a hit. Many other customs are followed by athletes, even though their customs should have nothing to do with their performance. Some studies indicate that these superstitions become self-fulfilling prophecies. People perform better in sports when they have been convinced that luck is on their side.

The athletes are not the only ones who are superstitious. Fans can also believe that their traditions or actions might affect the outcome of a game. If two fans go to the ballpark and their team is losing, they might exchange seats to see if that changes the team’s luck. Many fans, in the ballpark and watching on television, believe that the clothes they are wearing will bring their team luck. Some fans even choose not to attend the games because “they lose every time I come to the ballpark.”

The Chicago Bulls won enough games this season to enter the basketball playoffs. Their first opponent was the Milwaukee Bucks.  I was able to watch the first two games, both of which the Bulls won. The third game was not available where I live, but I checked the internet for the score a few times during the game, and the Bulls won that game too.

The Chicago Bulls won six championships back in the 1990s when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were on the team. My children and I watched the games on television, and we had a bowl of pretzels for a snack. To keep the children from emptying the bowl early in the game, I limited the number of pretzels each could eat. Somehow we started the custom of each eating one pretzel after one of the Bulls players had done something especially well. “Give that man a pretzel,” I would say, and we each would eat a pretzel.

So, after the third victory, I went to the grocery store and bought a bag of pretzels. During the fourth game, I ate a pretzel for every basket and every good defensive move by a Bulls player. The Bulls lost that game, but it was a close game. For the next game, I watched again with my bag of pretzels, again eating a pretzel for every good play. They lost again.

For the sixth game, I decided to leave my pretzels upstairs. This time the Bulls won, meaning that they would next play the Cleveland Cavaliers. For the first game of that series, I again left the pretzels upstairs. The Bulls won the game.

Can you see where this is going? There is no way that my eating pretzels or not eating pretzels can change the course of a professional basketball game. Even so, I want the Bulls to win, and if they lose while I am eating pretzels, then I will not eat a pretzel on game day.

For this reason, when the Bulls lost their second game to Cleveland, I went upstairs after the game and ate some pretzels. Magical thinking or not, I will do everything I can to help the team win another championship.

J.

[Postscript: The day after I wrote this post, the Bulls began a three-game losing streak that knocked them out of the playoffs. Feel free to tell me that it’s not my fault; I won’t believe you. J.]

Remembering Andy Kaufman

May 16, 1984, was a meaningful day for a number of reasons. To give one example, that was the day I took my last college final exam on my way to graduation that weekend. May 16, 1984 is also the day that Andy Kaufman died.

Andy was an entertainer who was usually lumped with other comedians. Andy, though, was much more than a comedian. The term “performance art” had not yet been coined when Andy was at the peak of his career, but one could argue that Andy invented performance art. In his live shows Andy portrayed a number of characters, jumping from one to another so quickly that audiences and critics were bewildered. Whenever Andy was performing a character, though, he was deeply involved in the role. People often asked each other if there was a real Andy Kaufman, or if Andy was nothing more than a collection of diverse characters.

Steve Allen wrote that “for Andy, it seems, the borderline between reality and imagination has always been unclear. Not surprisingly, this is the gift he brings us in his comedy. Although even those critics most fond of Andy as a performer insist that he is exploring this borderline, I believe they are mistaken. He is not exploring it; he lives there.”

Andy grew up on Long Island, living with his mother, father, sister, and brother. Television was new to the American home in those days, and Andy spent his childhood immersed in TV. When he wasn’t watching a show, he was performing, acting out his own television shows. Andy sometimes told interviewers that he truly believed that cameras were filming his acts. Whether he was in his bedroom or on the school playground, Andy continued performing, playing all the parts in his self-created television-land.

As a teenager, Andy performed at birthday parties and other local events. He always loved performing for children, because they accepted Andy as he was and did not question his performances. After finishing high school, Andy spent a year working odd jobs—waiting tables, driving a taxi (yes, really)—and then he enrolled in Graham Junior College, a two-year school which had a program in television broadcasting. As a student at Graham, Andy created a children’s program called Uncle Andy’s Fun House. He would reuse that name for his television special, although the network insisted on calling it The Andy Kaufman Special. In his last months, Andy again began planning a children’s program, still to be called Uncle Andy’s Fun House. After Andy died, one of his friends took his idea and presented it on Saturday mornings as Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

Next, Andy began appearing in nightclubs. The story that early audiences didn’t understand or like Andy’s act is fiction. Andy shocked his audiences, but he also entertained them. At this point he developed his famous Foreign Man character, and often he would make special arrangements with night club owners. To draw attention to Foreign Man between other acts in the clubs, Foreign Man would repeatedly approach the owner and beg for a chance to perform, the owner would continually say no, and eventually the owner would relent and allow Foreign Man a few minutes.

Most recordings of Andy’s Foreign Man routine were taped in front of audiences that knew the routine very well. They were thoroughly entertained and were not shocked. In the nightclubs, though, audiences were not prepared for Foreign Man. The point of the performance was that Foreign Man did not understand American humor. When he complained about how bad the traffic was, audiences were prepared for a quip, but instead he finished by saying, “It took me an hour and a half to get here.” When he complained about his wife’s cooking, audiences again were prepared for some kind of punch line, but after saying, “She doesn’t know how to cook,” Foreign Man would add, “Last night she made spaghetti and meatballs.” Of course the surprise of not hearing a joke when a joke is expected is itself a joke. (Sometimes this kind of joke is labeled “antihumor.”)

After several jokes that were funny by not being funny, Foreign Man would offer to do some imitations or impersonations. He would begin with an impression of Archie Bunker that was nothing like the television character in sound or in appearance. Then he would do Ed Sullivan. The voice was still wrong, but Foreign Man would capture the mannerisms of Ed Sullivan enough to draw a few chuckles. These chuckles distracted Foreign Man, and he would “lose his place” and need to start again. Audiences expected him to start Ed Sullivan again, but instead Foreign Man would return to the very first joke and race through the entire routine.

By this time audiences were fully accepting the idea that Foreign Man had no talent for humor or for impressions. When he promised to imitate Elvis Presley, the audience expected more of the same. Here Andy fooled them. His impression of Elvis was impeccable, matching the singer’s speaking voice, singing voice, stance, and gestures. Audiences responded wildly. As they applauded, Andy—still dressed as Elvis—would suddenly change faces and would respond with Foreign Man’s voice, “Tenk you veddy much.”
Andy was very fond of Elvis and of other performers from the 1950s. He intended his imitation of Elvis to be a tribute to the King. Elvis, it is said, considered Andy’s imitation the best of all that he ever witnessed.

Andy’s first national television exposure was on the initial episode of Saturday Night Live. Here he performed another of the routines that played well in nightclubs. He brought a record player onto the stage and started playing a recording of the theme song from Mighty Mouse. Andy then stood awkwardly and uncomfortably in front of the audience. When the song reached the line, “Here I am to save the day,” Andy lip-sinced that one line with confidence and boldness, afterward returning immediately to his nervous demeanor until the line reoccurred at the end of the song.

I became familiar with Andy’s act when he appeared on Van Dyke and Company in the fall of 1976. The network only broadcast eleven episodes of the show, and Andy appeared in ten of them. Van Dyke and Company was a variety show, hosted by comic actor Dick Van Dyke. Many big-name performers appeared in the show. Andy used variations of his nightclub acts, even begging Dick Van Dyke for the opportunity to do an act in the show. Van Dyke always seemed to be annoyed and puzzled by Andy, but that was just an act. Dick Van Dyke actually believed that Andy was brilliant, and he was proud to have him on the show.

In one episode, Andy played a pair of conga drums while singing nonsense syllables to the tune of the French folksong, Alouette. Generally when Alouette is sung, the audience is expected to repeat certain short phrases from the song. Andy expected the same, but after getting the audience involved, he threw a long stream of syllables together. Only those who knew Alouette realized that they did not have to repeat that line; they only needed to sing a long “O.”

I never understood why Andy took a part in the television situation comedy Taxi. That show seemed so much unlike his act, which jumped from character to character without notice. Later biographies portrayed Andy as unwilling to take the part, but pressured into taking it because it was what comedians did to get ahead in their careers. Reading that, I felt vindicated in my opinion about Andy and Taxi. The writers of Taxi took Andy’s Foreign Man character, named him Latka, and had him part of the regular ensemble. The show ran for several seasons, even switching networks at one point, but I was not a fan of the show.

Even before Andy was offered a role on Taxi, the network invited him to create a television special. His fame was growing because of Saturday Night Live and Van Dyke and Company, as well as live performances before audiences all over the country. Andy eagerly accepted the offer of a ninety-minute special and began crafting a mind-bending production.

The Andy Kaufman Special, or Uncle Andy’s Fun House, begins with Foreign Man seated in a chair in front of a television set. He looks into the camera and explains that he wasted all the money that the network had given him, so he had no guests, no sets, nothing to show the audience except himself and his chair. He warned that he would be sitting there for the entire ninety minutes. After this performance drags on for a while, Foreign Man leans to the camera and says, “Now that the audience is gone and only my friends are here, this is my special.”

After this introduction and the opening credits, Andy does his usual Foreign Man routine, complete to the ending imitation of Elvis Presley. At the end of the Elvis imitation, Andy begins stripping off his costume, throwing his clothing into the audience, until he is down to a sweat shirt with the words “I love Grandma” on the front. Andy becomes a new character, a cheerful and lovable character, and he claims, “Up until now, I have been only fooling. This is the real me.” After the show supposedly breaks for commercials, Andy changes characters again. Now he is pompous and strutting, berating the members of the audience for not returning his clothing.

The Nice Andy and the Mean Andy alternate for the rest of the show. Andy acts as the host of a variety show, leading the audience in a sing-along, and interviewing guests including Cindy Williams of Laverne and Shirley and Gail Slobodkin, who had played one of the Von Trapp children in a stage production of The Sound of Music. Both interviews are extremely odd, actually parodies of variety show interviews. The conversation with Cindy Williams degenerates into the awkwardness like that of two teenagers on a first date. Repeatedly, when Cindy tries to tell a story, Andy interrupts her with another question. Later, they both remain silent for nearly an entire uncomfortable minute, punctuated by the nervous chuckling of the live audience. Andy then pressures Cindy into singing, something which she claimed they had agreed to cut from the show. Later, Andy calls Gail Slobodkin a has-been, tells her that she will never succeed in show business, and openly mocks her behind her back while she sings.
All of this, of course, was scripted, and Cindy and Gail both were playing along with Andy’s style of entertainment. Meanwhile, Andy’s friend Bob Zmuda plays a stagehand who must placate the prickly host between guests. In one of their conversations, Andy and Bob both flub their lines. Clearly they meant to include the mistakes in the final version of the show, since they could easily have retaped that segment if they did not want the mistakes to be broadcast.

Near the end of the show, Andy interviews the puppet Howdy Doody. In this conversation, Andy is at his nicest and most sincere, telling the puppet how much he loved the show as a young boy. The audience waits for a joke, but no joke ever comes. Andy ends by hugging the puppet, and the show then concludes with every member of the cast joining Andy on stage so sing his signature closing song, “This Friendly World,” which was a minor hit for Fabian in 1959.

Network executives hated the special and refused to air it. More than two years later a different network did air the special, but only on a Friday night after the late news, clearly a dead spot in the network’s schedule. I was able to see the show that night, and I thought it was wonderful. Years later I bought a VHS recording of the special, but (sad to say) it had been edited down to less than sixty minutes.

Andy could not keep performing the same act over and over; too many people had already seen it on TV. Andy added a new character, a man who looked like a wrestler and boasted like a wrestler but would only wrestle women. Andy wanted to include the sound and feeling of wrestling in his act—not the Greco-Roman wrestling of the Summer Olympics, but the staged drama of traveling wrestling shows. Many members of his audiences hated this part of his act, and many other people protested his wrestling. They considered it insulting, demeaning toward women, and thoroughly lacking either taste or humor. Andy seems to have felt that getting this reaction was far better than being ignored. He included the wrestling portion in his act for years.

Andy also created a character named Tony Clifton, a Las Vegas singer who bellowed his songs and then scolded and insulted his audience. At first, Tony Clifton was merely Andy with a grease mustache, but Andy eventually added facial prosthetics, thick glasses, a more convincing mustache, and a glaringly tasteless tuxedo. The tuxedo must have been padded, because Tony Clifton was visibly much heavier than Andy Kaufman. Tony Clifton was grating and abusive; when he attempted humor, he failed much as Foreign Man failed. Nothing was likeable about this character, and Andy clearly used him to get a reaction from the audience, not merely to make the audience laugh.

Once Andy had completed the disguise, he never broke character while wearing it. Stagehands checking sound equipment were astonished to hear Tony Clifton carrying on in a fit of rage in the dressing room with no audience to witness the act. After a while, Bob Zmuda began to portray Tony Clifton while Andy took a break. Several of Tony Clifton’s appearances on television shows were actually Bob Zmuda and not Andy Kaufman.

Andy also continued to do an act he had done on Van Dyke and Company. Adopted a British accent, he offered to read The Great Gatsby to his audience. After a few sentences, people in the audience persuaded Andy to stop reading. Asking if they would prefer to listen to a record, a proposition to which the audience readily agreed, Andy then played a record which was a recording of him reading The Great Gatsby in a British accent.

Andy never read more than a few sentences of The Great Gatsby to any audience. Playing the record of his reading was the end of that routine. However, to get the reaction he wanted from the audience, Andy had friends and followers spread a rumor among those who were gathering for one of his live performances. The rumor was that Andy actually had read the entire novel to a bored audience somewhere else recently. Enough people in the audience heard and believed this rumor that they sincerely begged Andy not to read them the entire book.

In 1979 Andy got to fulfill his dream of playing Carnegie Hall. Tony Clifton opened with the Star Spangled Banner and a monologue, rather tame by Tony’s usual standards. Another singing group filled time until Andy was ready to appear. Andy welcomed the audience and pointed to his grandmother who was seated at the edge of the stage so she could enjoy the show. Along the way, Andy played the congas, introduced several guests, and performed Foreign Man complete to a spectacular Elvis imitation. Andy wrestled a woman, and then he also wrestled a man—Jay York, a stuntman who was defeating Andy soundly until Bob Zmuda got a can of spinach to Andy, which gave Andy strength to win the match (to the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man, of course).

Andy played a short movie and then introduced one of the singers who had appeared in the movie years ago when she was young. After being persuaded to recreate the song and dance of the movie, this elderly woman collapsed on stage. A doctor jumped from the audience to help, but to no avail. There was a long uncomfortable silence, until Andy came out in a feathered headdress and revived the woman.
Andy had dancers whom he claimed were the Rockettes (They weren’t.), and a singing group he claimed was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (They weren’t.). He even had a visit from Santa Claus. The biggest surprises came at the end of the show. First Andy did a brief impersonation of Tony Clifton, and then Tony came out on stage and they sang together. (Bob Zmuda did not portray Tony on this occasion.) Then Andy introduced Robin Williams, who had been sitting on stage during the entire show disguised as Andy’s grandmother. Andy then offered to take the audience out for milk and cookies. The audience boarded rented buses and were taken to a school cafeteria, where they were served milk and cookies and continued to be entertained by Andy, Robin Williams, and some of his other guests. As that ended, Andy promised to continue the show the next day on the Staten Island ferry. Reportedly some audience members showed up at the ferry, and Andy was there and did perform for them.

In the 1980s, Andy’s wresting act seems to have caught the attention of professional wrestler Jerry Lawler, who objected to Andy’s act. After trading insults for some time, the two men agreed to wrestle in Memphis. Lawler of course overpowered Andy, but Lawler then lost the match due to an illegal hold he called the power-driver. For months after this incident Andy wore a neck brace. David Letterman had both men on his show, Andy still wearing the neck brace. Andy began by apologizing, but the conversation turned ugly. Lawler eventually slugged Andy, knocking him out of his chair. Andy then cursed Lawler and threw a cup of coffee at him before fleeing. Only years after Andy had died did Lawler reveal that every one of these events had been planned and staged by him and Andy.

Andy died of cancer in 1984. While he was sick and receiving treatment, many people thought that the cancer was just one more act to deceive the public. Even after Andy died, some people continued to believe that Andy was hiding from the public and would one day appear to reveal the joke. This has not happened, I am sorry to report.

Fifteen years after Andy died, a movie was made about him. The movie is called Man on the Moon, and the name comes from a song by R.E.M. that mentions Andy. Many famous actors and comedians vied for the honor of portraying Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey was chosen by the director. (Here is an odd coincidence: Jim Carrey was born on Andy’s thirteenth birthday.) In some scenes Carrey portrays Andy almost flawlessly; in others he is recognizable as Jim Carrey. The opening of the movie is inspired by the opening of Andy’s TV special; after complaining that the events of his life were changed and rearranged in the movie for dramatic purposes (and, yes, they were), he says that the movie is over and tells the audience to go home.

The casting of the movie is odd. Some members of the cast of Taxi play themselves, but Danny DeVito plays Andy’s agent, George Shapiro. Shapiro, in turn, plays a night club owner who complains to Andy that his jokes aren’t funny. Other people, including Jerry Lawler and David Letterman, play themselves; according to the credits, Tony Clifton plays himself. Bob Zmuda is portrayed by Paul Giamati, but the real Zmuda has a brief role as a television director. All this switching of roles demonstrates a profound sensitivity to Andy’s personality.

Not only does the movie rearrange the events in Andy’s life, it also occasionally misunderstands Andy Kaufman. In one scene, Andy is portraying Tony Clifton in a restaurant kitchen but becomes Andy to speak with his agent. The real Andy never broke character that way. The movie shows the Carnegie Hall performance as something that follows the cancer diagnosis rather than preceding it by several years. In the movie, Andy actually does read The Great Gatsby to an audience from beginning to end.
In spite of these shortcomings, Man on the Moon is a fitting tribute to Andy Kaufman. Jim Carrey does the Foreign-Man-becomes-Elvis transformation before a puzzled and finally awed nightclub audience, something that cannot happen in the TV special or the Carnegie Hall show, both of which were attended by people who knew what was coming. The long-running ruse with Jerry Lawler is played well, with a subtle revelation of the actual planning. Many of the details ring true, and the performances are outstanding.

Every day the world experiences gains and losses. The world lost a great entertainer on May 16, 1984. Andy Kaufman will be long missed and never forgotten.

J.