The anniversaries of space disasters

The anniversaries of America’s three major space disasters occur on the same week. That fact is disconcerting, to say the least. The Apollo I fire on the ground, the space shuttle Challenger explosion shortly after lift-off, and the space shuttle Columbia disintegration on its landing approach happened on January 26, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 (respectively).

The thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger explosion brings back memories of that time. My first reaction to the news was disbelief; then I watched television coverage all afternoon. I saw replays of the explosion again and again, interspersed with speculation about what went wrong and reactions to the tragedy. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech to the nation that evening. I still feel it was one of his finer speeches. In the following days I wrote a song in tribute to the crew of seven, borrowing some of the phrases and expressions I found meaningful in the President’s speech.

My relationship with my guitar tends to run hot and cold. Sometimes I will practice every night in a row for several weeks, and sometimes the guitar will sit untouched for months. One time I failed to use the guitar for so long that it actually broke—the tension of the strings pulled apart the soundboard. A few months later the members of my family gathered enough money to give me cash for my birthday to buy a new guitar. Now I try to get it out and use it at least once a month.

When I bought my new guitar, I got out some of the songs I had written to relearn them. Generally all I had was a sheet of paper with the lyrics and the guitar chords. When I came to “Keep Flying High,” my tribute to the Challenger crew, I played the chords but couldn’t remember the tune. Disappointed in myself, I set the paper aside and worked on the other songs. One day the following week a tune sprang into my head. For a while I didn’t recognize it; suddenly I realized that it was the missing tune to “Keep Flying High.” I made sure then to practice the song so words and chords and tune would remain together in my memory.

The day my mother died, I was in the midst of a string of weeks during which I was practicing the guitar and singing my own music almost every evening. The morning of that day, “Keep Flying High” kept going through my head. Especially the bridge* kept repeating inside my head. Oddly enough, I was hearing the song not as I perform it, with voice and rhythm guitar, but with the words accompanied by arpeggios.* No doubt the words themselves were fitting—“When you leave this surly sphere, reach out and touch God’s face. Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” (The words were inspired by the President’s speech about the Challenger tragedy. He said, “We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.” Those words, in turn, were inspired by John Gillespie Magee, Jr’s poem “High Flight.”) The oddity was hearing my song in an arrangement I had never created. I still think of my mother every time I sing that song.

When I was a boy, I followed the space program fervently. I wish our country had some mission today that could lead to the same sort of triumph that Americans felt when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Seventeen astronauts died in America’s three space program disasters. Of course every human death is tragic. Every person is a hero or has the potential to become a hero. The shock of a sudden, violent, and public death makes the news and often the history books. In response, though, we remember the death that mattered most of all. We remember the death of God’s Son, the death that conquered death forever. “Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” J.

 

*BRIDGE: In a song that has verses and a repeated chorus, the bridge appears as a third theme that complements the other two themes. It can also be a second theme in a song with verses but no chorus. The “why she had to go…” part of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is a good example of a bridge.

*ARPEGGIO: Sometimes called a “broken chord,” an arpeggio is a series of notes played one by one which could be combined as a chord. Harp music often is performed as a combination of chords and arpeggios.

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Who is correct about religion?

What are the origins of religion? Why are so many people so religious, while others are so hostile toward religion? Why are there so many religions in the world, and why are they so different from each other?

Traditional practitioners of religion generally believe that their religion is the true religion and that all other religions are distortions of the truth. Take the two largest religions: traditional Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Christians believe that the first people to live in the world knew Jesus and that Moses and the prophets foretold the birth and mission of Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus is quoted as saying that Moses and the prophets wrote about him. Traditional Muslims believe that Allah is the God who created the universe, established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living, and will judge the world at the end of time. Traditional Muslims believe that the first people to live in the world knew Allah and that Moses and the prophets (including Jesus) all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, the message that is written as the Quran. Traditional Muslims say firmly that Jews and Christians follow distorted messages from the prophets of Allah but that the Quran is the true and timeless message from Allah.

When I went to college, I learned about a different approach to the history of religion. This could be called the evolutionary approach. According to this approach, primitive humans did not understand the world and were in awe of its workings, from the violence of thunderstorms to the regular growing of crops. What they did not understand they attributed to spirits, and they came to believe that powerful but invisible spirits filled the world. Over time, they began to worship some of these spirits as gods. Heroes from earlier times were also remembered and worshiped as gods. Each culture had its own gods, although they often would borrow gods from one another. Over time, different cultures began to think that their god was better than all the other gods. They would consider success—in warfare, in agriculture, in business, or in any other sphere—as proof that they were honoring the strongest of the gods. After many generations, some cultures began to develop monotheism—the belief in one god. Monotheism appeared briefly in Egypt but was rejected. It appeared in Israel as monotheistic Judaism, and it appeared in Persia as monotheistic Zoroastrianism. Christianity and Islam then developed from these two monotheistic religions, gaining the power to share their beliefs with other civilizations and convert them. Finally, during the Baroque period of European history, thinkers in what they called the Enlightenment developed deism. Deists believe that a god created the world and established the rules of nature and also the rules of moral living. However the god of the deists is not presently active in the world. This god has been compared to a watchmaker who assembles the watch, winds the spring, and leaves it to run on its own. Deists do not believe in miracles. They do not believe that worship or prayer have any value. Their focus is largely on learning and following the moral teachings established by god at the beginning of time. Today many atheists and agnostics consider themselves the heirs of deism, the final step in the evolution of religion which began with primitive people who do not understand the world but ends with scientific people who both understand and control their world.

Both views of religion are internally consistent, so which one is more likely to be true? Has religion evolved from primitive times to the present, or has religion de-evolved from a shared set of beliefs to many different forms of religion? Which position is best supported by the evidence that is available?

Many of the indigenous religions of Africa and the South Pacific islands have a core of monotheism with a twist: practitioners of these religions believe that a single powerful god made the world and all that exists. They also believe that this god is no longer involved in the world. Whether this god lost interest in the world or whether this god is angry that people have broken the moral laws, the god is no longer available to people of this world. Many other spiritual beings have arisen, though, to watch over people. They exist to hear and answer the prayers of people, to grant good things to people who worship them and who live moral lives but to bring trouble to those who do not worship the lesser gods and do not live by the moral code. Early Chinese texts also indicate that monotheism was believed by the earliest Chinese writers. The multitude of gods in Chinese thought developed largely from the belief that ancestors remained spiritually present after death to watch over the families, rewarding them for holding to the old ways and punishing them for developing new ways. Monotheism changed to polytheism as these glorified ancestors took the place of gods. Advantage: de-evolution.

The moral code of the world’s religions is remarkably similar wherever it appears. The basic rules about honoring the divine and being kind to other people are found in every religion. The Golden Rule—to treat others as you want to be treated—is expressed in every religion. Traditional believers see this as proof that the one true God put his Law in the hearts of people everywhere. Those who favor the evolution of religion search for details to prove diversity rather than a common set of teachings. They point to details—some religions permit and encourage the abandonment of unwanted babies and of the elderly while others condemn those acts as murder—but the former group views the death of the weak as a kindness to them and not as cruelty. Those who abandon their parents in such cultures hope that their own children will abandon them when they can no longer take care of themselves. The pursuit of kindness remains their motivation. Advantage: de-evolution.

Ever since the start of the so-called Enlightenment, self-labeled progressives have prepared the world for the end of religion. Science and education will end our silly superstitions, they say, and humanity will fulfill its destiny by forsaking primitive beliefs for modern and enlightened thoughts. Their announcement of the death of religion has been badly premature. Even in the atheist state of the Soviet Union, Christianity remained alive but largely hidden for seventy years. When the Soviet Union ended, the churches reopened. Humanity has not outgrown its need for a god; science and technology have brought world wars and polluted environments and the possibility of destruction of life on this planet, but religion brings hope that God remains in control of the world he made. The failure of religion to disappear—its continued importance in the lives of most humans—indicates that people are not evolving away from primitive superstitions that led to religion. Some may drift away, and their drifting may take them different directions, but religion continues to be meaningful and significant in the twenty-first century. Advantage: de-evolution.

Those who announce the evolution of religion and its eventual demise search through the holy books of religion—especially the Bible—seeking evidence that religion has developed over time. They point to scattered verses, taken out of context, to try to prove that ancient Israel changed from polytheism to henotheism (“My god is better than your god”) to monotheism. With their bits of evidence, they tell themselves that they have won the debate, just as other people are convinced they can prove that Paul McCartney died in 1965 or that Elvis Presley is still alive. This debate will not end in the foreseeable future, because both sides have a deeply held conviction—one might say, a religious faith—that they are right and the other side is wrong. Only in time will the final verdict be known. J.

 

A close encounter in the dark

About half an hour ago, I experienced one of those rites of passage that American drivers face and then share with one another. Tonight I hit a deer with my car.

Before I go any further, let me assure you that I am unharmed, the car is unharmed, and even the deer is fine. I cannot report how the deer feels about this experience, but I am very thankful to be able to report no damage from our collision.

I was driving a back road between towns, taking the long way around because the main highway is under construction. It was dark, of course, and I was traveling at the speed limit, which is 35 mph on that road. A lot of people speed on that road—if I had been going 50, this story would have been different. As I drove over the crest of a hill, I saw two deer: one standing on the shoulder of the road, and the other standing on the opposite lane from the one I was using. I began braking—not a stamp-on-the-pedal frantic break, because a second car was not far behind me, but still cautious slowing of the car. The deer on the road began running away from me down the road. I thought that this could be okay; I once followed a deer more than a mile down the road because it figured it could make better time on the pavement than into the trees. It was going full speed; I was crawling at ten miles an hour or so. Eventually, it changed strategy and left the road.

But that was a long time ago. Back to tonight. The deer that was on the road swerved in front of me to get off the road. By this time I was probably moving about five miles an hour. The car hit the shoulder and flank of the deer and came to a complete stop. The deer rolled over twice, leaving the road as it did so. Then it scrambled to its feet and headed for the trees; it did not appear to be limping.

The car behind me had also stopped in time, so we got rolling again, and I headed home. I had a brief alarm when I was stopped at a traffic light, because only one of my headlights was reflected from the back of the pickup truck in front of me. When the light turned green and the truck moved, however, I could see the reflection of the other headlight—the single reflection was just an oddity of our relative angle.

I know many drivers who have hit deer. Most of their stories are not as uneventful as mine. I was planning on writing a tribute to Mozart to post on his birthday tomorrow, but that tribute will have to wait for another time. Tonight I just had to share my dear deer story. J.

 

Calling all inventors!

Over the weekend an email appeared in all the inboxes of all the email users where I work. Perhaps you have seen this email too. It describes how internet uses can get to secret web sites where they can hire hitmen, buy and sell drugs, and conduct other illegal activity. A member of the IT department chose to send us all a follow-up email, making sure we knew that this was spam, and assuring us that our employer does not endorse or encourage the use of hit men.

Of course in the twenty-first century, the proper noun would be hitperson. (Even if SpellCheck says there is no such word. SpellCheck also says that SpellCheck is not a word.) Hitman should have gone out with policeman and fireman. I’m sure I have seen women perform hits in movies and television shows. On the other hand, if one is already engaged in criminal activity, compounding the crime with political incorrectness probably does not matter very much.

More than that, though, the emails caused me to ask myself whether I would ever want to hire a hitperson. Naturally, the first person who came to mind was Mrs. Dim. The truth is that I do not want Mrs. Dim to die. Especially I do not want her to die a violent death. I would approve if she would move to another state. I would even help her pack. Her leaf blower would be the very first thing I would tape into a box to send on its way.

But Mrs. Dim is not planning to move. Our other dimmer neighbors are unlikely to move out so soon after moving in. They took out another tree this weekend. From the number of hours the chain saw was roaring, I have to assume that they were dismantling the tree six inches at a time. They didn’t even finish Saturday; they had to do some chain sawing Sunday afternoon as well.

If a hitperson is not the answer to my problem, what would bring me relief? I have in mind an invention that would help, but not being one of those creative STEM types, I need to send out a call for help. What I need is a noise-seeking missile. As a heat-seeking missile is drawn to its target by the heat of the target, this noise-seeking missile would be drawn to loud machines, such as chain saws and leaf blowers. They would not be powerful enough to maim or kill the operator of the device, but they would have the power to render the device inactive. I would like to base these missiles in my attic, with several missiles targeted at Mrs. Dim’s property and at the dimmer neighbors’ property. I would not have them armed at all times; the neighbors can make all the noise they want when my family and I aren’t at home. When I need things to be quiet, though, the missiles would be armed and ready to defend the peace of the neighborhood from senseless noise.

I expect that the missiles could be calibrated to react to certain annoying pitches. They could also be set to respond to five minutes of continuous noise or five total minutes of sporadic noise (such as a chain saw). I wouldn’t want to accidently destroy a barking dog or the city’s garbage truck. I have mixed feelings about a car with a damaged muffler; I suppose the missiles could be set to finish off a car if it has been driven for a week without being repaired. The motorcyclist who roars through the neighborhood every pleasant evening—clearly having disabled the motorcycle muffler to add to the driver’s enjoyment—would be fair game. I would want to be sure that the inventor knows that these noise-seeking missiles need to be able to target, follow, and disable a moving motorcycle.

Interest inventors can reply to me on this post. J.

 

 

Arthur, King of Britain

The legends of King Arthur have extended through the history of the English language. Each generation, it seems, owns Arthur and his story; each generation, it appears, rewrites the story to suit its own challenges and values.

More than likely, Arthur did exist. If so, he was a Celtic warlord at the time that the Romans were withdrawing their troops from Britain. Arthur probably was trained by the Romans in military matters and in Roman law. Quite likely Arthur was Christian. His fame rested, at first, on his leadership of the Celts against the German tribes of Saxons and Angles who were crossing from mainland Europe to replace the Roman rule in Britain. Arthur seems to have won several victories before dying in battle; his legend was remembered, not only by the Celts who withdrew from southeastern Britain, but also among the German tribes who established the country called England.

Arthur is remembered as a Christian king. Many of the adventures of his knights took place when Arthur’s court met to observe Christian holidays (such as Christmas, Candlemas, Easter, and Pentecost). Some of the adventures, though, seem to be retellings of myths and legends from the pre-Christian religions of Britain. The presence of monstrous giants, fierce dragons, and the magician Merlin (sometimes identified as “son of the devil”) bears witness to Celtic beliefs. Queen Guinevere is kidnapped by enemies of the kingdom and must be rescued by Arthur. As the Norsemen (or Vikings) raided English and Celtic settlements, memories of King Arthur and his successes multiplied. Other local heroes became identified with Arthur’s court, and dreams of the Round Table encouraged people during this time of turmoil.

In the middle of the eleventh century, two kingdoms that had arisen from Viking settlements sought to claim England. The English army defeated the Danes, only to lose to the Normans, who came from Normandy, land previously granted to them by the king of France. The new rulers of England introduced a culture that was part Viking and part French, but which was able to incorporate the story of Arthur into its vision of England. A little less than a century after the victory of the Normans, Geoffrey of Monmouth included accounts of King Arthur in his History of the Kings of Britain. Already Arthur was said to be the son of King Uther Pendragon and Ygerna, then wife to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwell. Uther dies when Arthur is fifteen, and Arthur is made king. During the following years Arthur consolidates his kingdom, first on the island of Britain, next extending to Ireland and Iceland, then to Norway, and eventually to Rome itself. Arthur defeats the Roman Emperor Lucius Hiberius, but before he returns to England his throne is seized by Mordred, a kinsman of Arthur who had been placed in control of the English government during Arthur’s absence. A bloody battle ensues in which Mordred is killed and Arthur is mortally wounded. He is taken to the island Avalon, according to Geoffrey, in the year 542, and the kingdom passes into other hands.

Around the same time that Geoffrey was writing his military history of Arthur, in France Chretien de Troyes was blending the romances of chivalry into the accounts of Arthur’s rule. Chretien is the first to mention the name Camelot; he is the first to tell of Lancelot’s affair with Queen Guinevere and the first to describe the quest for the Holy Grail. Stories of the Fisher King, somehow related to Joseph of Arimathea, were told earlier, but they were not linked to King Arthur until Chretien wrote his work. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, as the Italian Renaissance was already well under way, Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d’Arthur, probably the most famous compilation of the stories related to King Arthur and the knights of Camelot.

England’s importance grew tremendously during the rule of the Tudors, the Stuarts, and the Hanovers (as well as the time of the Puritan rule under Oliver Cromwell). An empire was established, and an industrial revolution began in England that changed the entire world. By the nineteenth century, readers of the English-speaking world favored a return to the romantic stories of earlier times. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King, a series of poems about Arthur and his knights. Howard Pyle wrote children’s books to tell the story of Arthur and Camelot. (Pyle’s version is the first that I read as a child. Pyle is also known for his accounts of Robin Hood and for his stories about pirates, both strong influences on literature and storytelling to the present.) Well before Monty Python produced a comic film version of the story of King Arthur, Mark Twain explored the comic possibilities of Camelot in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain’s Arthur and Merlin are not the noble heroes of Malory and Tennyson. They are bumbling, superstitious, and easily awed by the scientific and technological knowledge of the time-traveling American.

The twentieth century is known for two World Wars, and in that time of gloom the legend of Arthur was rewritten again. T. H. White wrote The Once and Future King, highlighting the tragedy and foolishness of war. His book was the basis for Lerner and Lowe’s Camelot, which was an award-winning Broadway musical, later made into a movie. In fact, Arthur has been portrayed in more than a hundred movies since 1909, including a Disney cartoon and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Perhaps the best movie version of Arthur’s story is Excalibur (1981) starring Nigel Terry and Nicol Williamson, and directed by John Boorman.

In the past fifty years, many fantasy writers have labored to rewrite the story of King Arthur. Some have sought to place him in the proper time, at the end of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Others have tried to recreate the late Middle Ages’ romance and chivalry of Malory’s tale. Still others have tried to expand upon the magic of Merlin, Morgan, and the Lady of the Lake, putting Arthur and his companions in a world far removed from the contemporary world of science and technology.

In most versions of the story, Arthur does not die, but when he is badly wounded he is taken by barge to the mystical island called Avalon. There he continues to heal, but he will return to support his kingdom at its time of greatest need. Thanks to Geoffrey, Malory, Tennyson, White, and others, Arthur and his legend has frequently returned, supporting England and the entire world in those times when we need a legend to sustain us. J.

Contentment

Several times this month I have tried to write about contentment, but I was never satisfied with what I wrote. This might be an example of irony. It might be evidence that I do not heed my own advice. It might affirm the proverb that says, “Those who cannot do, teach.”

The Bible describes contentment. “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Proverbs 19:23). Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 6:6-8). “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).

In these verses contentment seems to rest in satisfaction with what possessions one has in this world—enough food, enough clothing, enough money, but none of these things in excess. Lotteries thrive on the lack of contentment in our society. Advertisements would not work if most people were content. Lack of contentment seems to be a driving force in many of the decisions people make every day, and in the large lifetime decisions people sometimes struggle to make.

The opposite of contentment is coveting. God has forbidden coveting in his Ten Commandments. Coveting is not merely wanting something; coveting is seeing what another person has and desiring it for one’s own. If you are happy to see your neighbor with a new car, you are not coveting—even if you admire the car and wish you could have one like it. When you see your neighbor’s new car and grumble, complaining how unfair life is, then you are coveting. When you are angry at people who have good things you do not have, then you are coveting. Coveting is a sin because you cannot love your neighbor while you covet what belongs to your neighbor. Moreover, you do not love and trust God when you are angry and unhappy because of the things you do not have.

God tells his people not to covet their neighbors’ house. This includes anything that can be bought with money—not only the building next door, but also the car, the clothing, the concert ticket or season ticket, or the winning lottery ticket. Whenever you ask, “Why him and not me?” you are in danger of coveting. God also tells his people not to covet their neighbor’s husband or wife, not to covet their neighbor’s workers, and not even to covet their neighbor’s work animals. This includes anything that is tied to a person by loyalty—pets and friends as well. In junior high school, people are sometimes very open about coveting each other’s friends, to the point of crying because “Susie likes Jane more that she likes me.” As adults we are more subtle about the way we covet, but sometimes we are still unhappy and even angry because of the friendships and relationships other people have that we do not have.

Contentment does not mean that we cannot plan for improvements, work to earn money to buy the things we want, or hope for a better life. We are content, not only with what we have today, but also with what is available to us in the future. Contentment does not mean being satisfied with mediocre work. A content person has done his or her best at a task, and when the task is finished, the content person is able to move on to something else. Contentment does not require us to tolerate evil. When we see wickedness and evil, these things should make us angry. Accepting evil and not resisting it is not being content—accepting evil and not resisting it is being calloused and cold.

Contentment is easier to define in negative ways than in positive ways. Yet contentment is not an absence of desire or of anger. Contentment is a positive state. Contentment is “peace at the center.” Contentment is confidence that God is working all things for good. Contentment is trusting God, while also working to serve God by loving him and by helping our neighbors. Like peace and joy, contentment is a deeper quality than happiness or pleasure. Contentment does not disappear even when things are going wrong. If a Christian is struggling with credit card debt, if a Christian is struggling to pass a difficult class, or if a Christian is lonely and looking for friends, that Christian can still be content. The forces of evil hate to see God’s people having peace and joy and contentment. They fight to strip these qualities away from the Christian. Yet peace and joy and contentment are rooted in God’s gift of faith, which is the very reason that our enemies cannot take away our peace and joy and contentment.

I have seen an inspirational poster that says, “Living in the future is anxiety. Living in the past is depression. Living in the present is contentment.” In part, I disagree. Happy memories and nostalgia also involve the past—not all thoughts of the past are depression. Hope and eager expectation also involve the future—not all thoughts of the future are anxiety. The only time in which a Christian can live, though, is today. God has guaranteed our future. He has already taken care of all our past problems. Now Jesus teaches his people to pray for daily bread, for daily forgiveness, for the ability to forgive others each day, for daily guidance, and for daily protection. Because of the work of Christ, we do not have to pray about the past. Because of the promises of God, we do not have to pray about the future. Jesus teaches us to live one day at a time, praying that day for that day’s needs.

This, I think, is the secret of being content. It starts with knowing God, trusting God, and loving God. It continues by living one day at a time, neither frightened of what is past or worried about what is to come. Living one day at a time, though, we can still thank God for the good things of the past, and we can hope for (and plan for) good things to come in the future. Before writing about his contentment, Paul first gave advice telling how to be content. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

I know one more secret about contentment. It cannot be pursued successfully. What a Buddhist says of enlightenment, I say of Christian contentment: the harder you seek it, the harder it is to find. You only receive it when you are not looking for it or trying to get it. When I was a boy I used to chase butterflies, but I never captured any. Now that I am a man, I sometimes sit in the garden, and butterflies land on my knee. May contentment come to you, not through your striving, but rather when you are least expecting it. J.

 

Sin, sacrifice, forgiveness

“If God is Almighty,” the question is raised, “why does he demand a bloody sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins? Why does he not simply forgive without any sacrifice being made?”

God is Almighty and can do whatever he chooses to do. God created the world and everything in it, and when God was finished creating, what he had made was very good. God told people how to live in his world, to take care of the world and to take care of themselves and one another. People chose to do things their way instead of God’s way. Because people rebelled against God, evil and wickedness and death entered the good world God had made. Because of sin, the world was no longer very good.

God could have created a world in which sin and rebellion were impossible. If he had done so, then love and obedience would be meaningless, because people would be forced to love and obey God. God could have created a world where forgiveness of sin was immediate and without cost. If forgiveness was cheap, then sin and wickedness would also be cheap. Rebellion against God, and damage of the good things God made, and harm to the people God made and God loves: all these things would mean nothing if the cost to repair them was nothing. Because God is good, and because the world he made is good, and because he loves the people he made, God places a high price on thoughts and words and actions that damage the world and harm people. When damage is done, a high price must be paid to fix and restore what is broken. That high price shows the value of the people and the world created by God.

God could have created a world of perfect justice, in which each sinner paid and suffered for his or her own sins. In a world of perfect justice, I could not hurt you and you could not hurt me. Each of us would suffer for his or her own sins. In such perfect justice, rescue would not be possible. No one could reconcile another person to God; even God could not provide reconciliation, because of perfect justice. Instead, God created a world in which justice is overpowered by love. Sin and evil have victims, but God Himself is able to be a victim of sin and evil in order to rescue all the victims of sin and evil.

The Almighty God entered creation and became a man, as human as any of us, except that he never sinned. That man obeyed all the commands of God, doing what all people were created to do. He then offered his life as a sacrifice, becoming a victim to rescue victims. He was abused and tortured, he bled, and he died. From the horrors of the cross, we learn how costly our rebellion truly is; but from the horrors of the cross we see the love of God, that he was willing to pay the price to restore us and to restore the world he created.

Having entered time and space to restore the world, God then moved backward in time to communicate what he had done to previous generations. He required the sacrifice of animals and the shedding of their blood as pictures of the price God would pay to rescue victims of sin and to restore creation. In the account of Adam and Eve, animals died so that Adam and Eve could be clothed in their furs. Adam and Eve had tried to hide their nakedness with fig leaves, but such clothing quickly disintegrates—it has no lasting value. All the good things people do to try to cancel their own sins are ineffective. Only God can pay the price of reconciliation, as Jesus gives his life on the cross to clothe his people in his righteousness.

The price Jesus paid is sufficient to cover all the sins of history. No sin is bigger than the payment made by Jesus. For that reason, Jesus directs his people to share forgiveness with all sinners. He teaches his people to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). His apostles instruct us, “as the Lord forgives you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). To treat any sin as unforgiveable calls all of God’s forgiveness into question—how can you be sure that all your sins are forgiven if you regard another person’s sin to be beyond forgiveness? Jesus compares our sins, forgiven through his sacrifice, to ten thousand talents—hundreds of millions of dollars in American money. He compares the sins committed against us by others to one hundred talents—enough to buy a used car, but tiny compared to ten thousand talents (Matthew 18:23-35). When he was asked how often should a Christian forgive a brother—is seven times enough?—Jesus invented a number. Sometimes it is translated “seventy-seven” and sometimes “seventy times seven” (490), but the actual word that Jesus spoke does not exist as a number. God’s forgiveness never ends, and our forgiveness never ends.

When we forgive, though, we are not generating forgiveness from the goodness of our own hearts. We are passing along the forgiveness provided by Jesus in his sacrifice. If we had to forgive others first to earn God’s forgiveness, not one of us would be forgiven. Jesus has paid the full price for all sins. The forgiveness of Jesus runs through our lives, reconciling us to God and delivering the same reconciliation to other sinners. Therefore, when Peter had confessed his faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus celebrated the faith of Peter and added, “I give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you lock on earth is locked in heaven, and whatever you unlock on earth is unlocked in heaven” (Matthew 16:19, my paraphrase). He said similar words to all his followers (Matthew 18:18), and he said them again the night after his resurrection: Jesus “breathed on” the disciples “and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’” (John 20:22-23).

The same keys lock and unlock heaven; the same power grants forgiveness and withholds forgiveness. When would a Christian withhold forgiveness from a sinner? Forgiveness is withheld from the sinner who does not want to be forgiven. A sinner who does not acknowledge his or her sin and need for forgiveness should not be told he or she is forgiven anyhow. A sinner who thinks forgiveness is earned by his or her own good works should be told that forgiveness is withheld. Offering forgiveness to a sinner who does not want to be forgiven is giving dogs what is holy and casting pearls before swine (Matthew 7:6). Jesus wants his people to warn sinners of their sins and to call them to repent. Those who refuse to repent should not be told that they are forgiven.

Repenting and believing are not good things Christians do to earn God’s forgiveness. Repenting and believing are changes God makes in the lives of people. Forgiveness is available to all people—no sin is bigger than the payment Jesus made on the cross—but it does not come to anyone who refuses to repent and refuses to believe God’s promise of forgiveness. Repenting and believing are not things Christians do once and then never have to do again. Repenting and believing are part of daily life for a Christian. Each day a Christian confesses sins to the Lord and rejoices in the Lord’s forgiveness. Each day Christians share the good news of forgiveness with one another and unlock the kingdom of heaven for each other through the forgiveness of sins.

I am delighted that the opponents of Christianity are asking questions about forgiveness and sacrifice. Debates about science and archaeology and history are distractions, but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is the center of our faith. I do not have to believe in Adam or Noah or Moses to be reconciled to God, but I must believe in Jesus Christ to be reconciled to God. Believing in Jesus, I accept what he says about Moses and the prophets; but salvation is found in no one but Jesus. Noah and Moses are pictures of Jesus, but he is the fulfillment of everything they said and did. J.

 

23 Odd Facts about Man on the Moon

In 1999 the film Man on the Moon was released as a bio-pic of entertainer Andy Kaufman. Because today is the 67th birthday of Andy Kaufman, I plan to watch that film tonight. Even before I do so, though, here are some interesting facts about Man on the Moon.

  • The title of the movie comes from a 1992 song by R.E.M., portions of which are heard several times during the movie; it is heard in full during the closing credits.
  • Jim Carrey, who portrays Andy Kaufman in the movie, was born on January 17, 1962, Andy’s thirteenth birthday.
  • Andy Kaufman’s granddaughter plays Andy’s sister Carol in the movie.
  • The real Andy Kaufman can be heard in the movie, singing the song “Rose Marie.”
  • The opening monologue of the movie, in which “Andy” tells the audience that there is no movie, is based on the opening of Andy’s TV special, in which he tells the audience that there is no special.
  • In the opening monologue, “Andy” tells the audience that “all the most important things in my life are changed around and mixed up for dramatic purposes.” The most significant change is that Andy’s Carnegie Hall performance took place several years before he was diagnosed with cancer.
  • The film presents Andy’s TV special as a condition for him to play a character in Taxi, but the special was actually filmed before Andy was invited to be part of the Taxi cast.
  • Jerry Lawler, David Letterman, and Wendy Polland are among about a dozen people in the film who play themselves.
  • Paul Giamatti plays Andy’s friend and co-conspirator, Bob Zmuda, and Bob Zmuda plays Jack Burns, the director of Fridays, who fights with Andy during the live show.
  • Danny DeVito plays Andy’s agent, George Shapiro (DeVito’s character in Taxi is ignored), and George Shapiro appears in the film as a nightclub owner who tells Andy that his act is not funny.
  • Courtney Love plays Lynn Marguiles, who was Andy’s girlfriend from 1982 to 1984, and Lynn Marguiles is briefly seen during the funeral at the end of the movie.
  • The movie shows “Andy” wrestling Lynn on the Merv Griffin show, but the two did not meet until long after Andy began wresting women as part of his act, and the two never wrestled each other in public.
  • The movie only mentions Lynn’s last name once, when Andy answers the telephone in the house they are sharing.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reads the entire novel The Great Gatsby, to an audience. Actually, Andy never read more than the first lines of the book to an audience. That skit ended with the recording of Andy reading the book after the audience has been asked to choose between hearing Andy read the novel or hearing a recording. However, when this skit was part of Andy’s act, his associates successfully spread the rumor that Andy had read the entire novel in his previous performance, making the audience’s reaction to his reading more genuine.
  • In the movie, “Andy” has already apologized for wresting women as part of his act and apparently has ceased doing so before the Carnegie Hall performance, but Andy actually did wrestle a woman as part of the Carnegie Hall performance.
  • The filmed version of the Carnegie Hall performance omits showing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the New York City Rockettes, probably because the real Choir and Rockettes did not appear in the show; their names were used by a different choir and group of dancers. As a result, Santa Claus is seen only in the background while Andy invites the audience out for milk and cookies.
  • In the movie, “Andy” reveals Eleanor Cody Gould’s age, but in the Carnegie Hall performance Eleanor Cody Gould refuses to reveal her age.
  • In the Carnegie Hall performance, Eleanor Cody Gould claims that the short movie “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” was made in 1931, but the copyright date of 1946 can be seen in the film itself.
  • As shown in the movie, Andy Kaufman was voted off Saturday Night Live in January 1983, by a vote of 195,544 to 169,186; Andy’s career was considered a flop at that time, not because of the difference of 25,000 votes, but because nearly half a million people had participated in a similar stunt the previous October, in which the question was whether to cook or release a lobster. Having more people care about the lobster than about Andy made a larger impression than the results of the vote.
  • When he imitated Tony Clifton, Andy never broke character; the movie’s scene set in a restaurant kitchen (in which “Andy” allows “George Shapiro” to recognize him) never would have happened.
  • As of this movie, five performers have imitated Tony Clifton: Andy Kaufman, Bob Zmuda, Michael Kaufman (Andy’s brother, at the end of the Carnegie Hall performance), Jim Carrey, and Paul Giamatti. Zmuda has probably imitated Clifton more often than the other four combined.
  • While filming Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey demanded that he always be addressed as Andy, both on and off the set.

The joy of liturgy

A few hours after I created a post about classical music, I came across this post by Truth and Tolerance, by way of InsanityBytes. The topic is also music, although it is focused more on music in the Christian Church and especially in worship. The topic is, in fact, the most classical of all music, the traditional music of the Christian liturgy.

I completely agree with everything T&T wrote (although I might have used gentler language). The central point of her post (and hence of this post) is that the Divine Service is not meant to be edited so that it appeals to younger people. The traditions of the Church have developed over time, not because of negotiations with the lowest common denominator or with the next generation, but because the power of those traditions communicates the message of Christ and his Church in a way that is tried, tested, and proven. Making changes because of the felt needs of the worshipers does not work for two reasons. First, the needs they feel are not their deepest needs. Christ knows their deepest needs, and his Church is designed to meet those needs. Second, once the elements of worship become negotiable, worship itself becomes negotiable for the worshipers. Worship attendance in the United States has dropped over the last fifty years, not because churches have not tried hard enough to give people what they want, but because churches have tried too hard to give people what they want.

Children instinctively distinguish between what is important and what is fun. Tell a child, “This is going to be fun,” and the child hears, “This is just to entertain you; it doesn’t really matter.” Sunday School has gradually changed from “bring up these children in the faith so that when they are older they will not depart from it” to “entertain these children and make church seem fun so they will want to keep coming when they are older.” As a result, the children learn nearly nothing about their faith in Sunday School; if their parents are not teaching them the faith at home, no one is telling them what it means to be a Christian.

A few years ago I was in a meeting of church workers. Running the meeting was a progressive church planter, the kind of minister who says that the last words of a congregation are, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Several quotes were stenciled on the walls of the meeting room, and he noticed one that said, “Tradition is the democracy of the dead.” The church planter pointed to that saying and told us to take it to heart, that if we cling to our traditions, we are clinging to death instead of life. I responded, “I rather like the idea of democracy that includes the dead. It’s nice to know that, when we worship, we are joining with all the saints who have gone before us.” I reminded him of one of the phrase in our traditional liturgy: “that with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and praise thy glorious name…” “All the company of heaven” includes every believer who has died and is in Paradise with Jesus. Ancient heroes of the faith are there. My grandparents and other Christians I have loved are there. When I partake in the traditional divine service, the Lord hears my voice mingled with their voices in one vast Christian choir.

New music can enter the old traditions, provided that the new music does not refocus those traditions away from the Lord. Great hymns (no matter what century they were written) lead people to know Jesus, not only as the awesome God worshiped by all creation, but particularly as the Savior who has claimed his people, rescued them from their sins, and reconciled them to himself. I’m fine with Contemporary Christian Music on the radio and in my music collection. Very little of it is suitable for the divine service, because its focus is not the same as that of the traditional liturgy.

The liturgy is not culturally bound. It is not merely a European way of worshiping God; it developed from the Jewish worship of the synagogue, and its development happened largely in western Asia and northern Africa. The liturgy is not bound by time. It unites Christians of three or four generations during each service, and it unites Christians of dozens of generations spreading over two thousand years. The liturgy is not bound by the age of the worshipers. Children who have not yet begun to read can learn the liturgy by hearing it every week. Mothers of young children can speak and sing the liturgy without needing to balance a hymnal and a worship folder and a baby in the same two hands. Elderly people whose eyesight is not as good as it used to be can speak and sing the liturgy; it is engrained in their memories so thoroughly that it often survives intact even when those elderly people no longer recognize their own children.

When the preacher’s sermon is poor—and every preacher has a bad Sunday now and then—the liturgy still proclaims the message of the Church. When a worshiper’s mind is wandering, the liturgy brings him or her back again to the message of the Church. When a visitor is sitting in church for the first time, the liturgy tells that visitor what the congregation is doing. No, the liturgy will not be familiar to the visitor during the first visit, or even the tenth time he or she returns. But that unfamiliar liturgy will speak to the visitor more eloquently than any cheerful greeting, telling the visitor what the Church is doing in the service. (One of the most beautiful things I have seen happen in a church happened when a man in his seventies changed pews to share hymnals with a first-time visitor in her twenties.)

If a child is brought to church every Sunday for his or her first five years, that child will have heard the liturgy two hundred fifty times. The familiar pattern of worship will be more comforting to that child than the most entertaining praise song or film clip or (shudder!) puppet show. Families that worship together grow spiritually together. May this weekend’s services be, for each of us, a delight to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. J.

Classical music and me

The words “classical music” mean different things to different people. For some people classical music is music that is old and out of style. For others it is a specific term for a certain group of European composers, particularly Mozart and Haydn. For me classical music refers to all the music one might hear on a fine arts radio station. It includes Gregorian chant and medieval pieces, the Baroque masters ( J.S. Bach, Palestrina, Telemann, and Vivaldi), Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven and all the other early Romantic composers, the richness of the late nineteenth century composers, experimental music of the twentieth century, and even movie scores from the last hundred years. It’s all good.

I grew up around that kind of music. My parents listened to talk radio during the week (mostly for weather and traffic reports), but on weekends the family radio was tuned to the fine arts station. Their record collection featured classical music, music from Broadway musicals and from a few movies, some Big Band music from the forties, and some folk music from the fifties and sixties. I started piano lessons when I was in first grade and added the trombone when I was in fifth grade, playing in middle school and high school bands and orchestras as well as some honor bands and orchestras. In college I took a class called “appreciating classical music,” and it was the easiest A I earned in all four years.

I also listen to popular music—Elvis, the Beatles and other sixties groups, a lot of seventies and eighties oldies, and even some twenty-first century popular music. (I didn’t warm to Taylor Swift until her 1989 album, but that I like because it reminds me of music I enjoyed hearing at the end of the eighties.) I avoid rap as best as I can, and my tolerance for country-and-western is about two consecutive songs, but most music on the radio suits me. My favorite station plays a mix of oldies and contemporary popular music, and my car radio is generally set to that station.

On November 1, though, my favorite station suddenly switched to all Christmas music, all the time. By the third Christmas song I was through with that station for a while, and I switched to the fine arts station. For two-and-a-half months I’ve heard nothing in my car but classical music, and I am still not ready to switch back.

Take this evening, for instance. I was coming home from work, sitting in traffic with all those other cars, but I had the volume turned up high because the station was playing Debussy’s La Mer. Not many people get to rock to Debussy all the way home from work, but it brought me to the driveway in a good mood.

Five of my favorite works are Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody Number Two,” Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” Joachin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez,” and Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Blue Danube Waltz.” But I’m happy to hear Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, or any of the greats. I even enjoy hearing opera.

I will probably switch back to my old favorite station sometime this winter or spring. Meanwhile, as long as I’m hearing the tunes I like on the way to work and back, don’t imagine that I’m nodding my head and drumming on the steering wheel listening to Taylor Swift. It’s just as likely to be Respighi or Wagner who got me cookin’. J.