The final straw

A few years ago I found a radio station I truly enjoyed. It played music from fifties hits to contemporary hits—you could hear Elvis and Taylor Swift and the Beatles and the Police in the same fifteen-minute set. It played the longer version of songs. It never played the same song twice on the same day, and it mixed up its songs enough that you were not likely to hear the same song more than once a week. It boasted that it did not broadcast a lot of “DJ chatter.” OK, it boasted of that a bit too often, but that’s a minor complaint about a station I genuinely loved.

On November 1, 2015, it started playing nothing but Christmas music. Not even carols—just songs like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” As soon as I realized what it was doing—about the third song in—I switched to a classical music station, and my car radio stayed on that station until spring.

I should point out that I listen to the radio only in my car. At home if I want to hear music I choose a CD. Even my morning wake-up alarm is music off a CD. But my car does not have a working CD player. (OK, it does not have a broken CD player either. It has a broken cassette tape deck.) I avoid talk radio. I avoid country music. I avoid current top forty hits, or whatever they call that kind of music now. That leaves me with Oldies and Classic Rock; but I really enjoyed the eclectic mix of that one radio station I had found.

When I returned to that station in the spring of 2016, they had diminished their library to seventies and eighties hits. They played the shorter version of songs. (Think of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” with a truncated monologue at the beginning and the final instrumental riff removed.) Even with those annoyances, I was willing to listen. I like a lot of songs from the early to mid eighties, as well as some songs from the seventies. Listening was not as satisfying as it had been, but it filled the time driving to work and back, driving to school and back, driving to church and back.

In fact, they added one feature I enjoy: on Sunday mornings they rebroadcast a Casey Kasem Top Forty countdown from the eighties. I hear the lower part of the countdown on the way to church and get to enjoy the bigger hits on the way home.

But they went to a Christmas-heavy format again last November, sending me once more to the classical music station. When I returned in January, I found that they had hired a morning DJ who chatters. He has listeners call in (or text or Facebook-message) to converse with him about oddities he has discovered while surfing the internet. Even worse, he talks over the instrumental introductions to songs.

Today he broke the final straw. He talked over the entire instrumental introduction to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” and then he also cut off the ending of the song. The instrumental part of “Eye of the Tiger” makes the song—without that part of the music, it’s actually a pretty lame song.

I have switched back to the classical station. And I probably will never return. J.

 

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Jesus Christ, identity thief

Earlier this month I heard an interesting sermon upon God’s commandment not to steal. The first part was rather predictable, listing the many ways we rob each other of money, of property, of value, and of time. Most people can probably make a list of the way these things have been stolen from them, and the more honest people can make a similar list of the way these things have been stolen by them.

Of course the point of the sermon was not to scold thieves, but rather to call thieves to repentance so they could be assured of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. The sermon took a shocking turn, though, when the preacher said that to rescue sinners like us, Jesus Christ became an identity thief.

Jesus was willing to describe himself as a thief. He described his future coming in glory as “like a thief in the night.” He also called himself a stronger man, tying up the strong man (the devil) so he could rob that strong man of his possessions (sinners). The way Jesus rescues sinners is not fair; he gives us rewards we do not deserve and takes instead the punishment we deserve. On Judgment Day, as our enemies see us enter the kingdom of heaven, they will stamp and cry and shout, “That’s not fair!” Our salvation is unfair, but God’s mercy and love move him to be unfair for our benefit.

But does that make Jesus Christ an identity thief? Generally speaking, an identity thief pretends to be another person in order to gain things through that person’s name and reputation. I know a couple whose tax refund was delayed more than a year because someone had filed a return using their names and address and Social Security numbers, cheating the government out of money that did not belong to that thief. Identity thieves borrow money or make purchases using another person’s name and credit account; it can take years for the victim to escape those debts and reestablish a good credit rating. Identity thieves can hack bank accounts, emptying them of funds before the bank and the victim know what has happened. Identity theft adds up to millions of dollars wrongly gained by criminals and millions of dollars lost to honest individuals, businesses, and banks.

What does Jesus have to gain by stealing our identities? He does not need money or property; everything in the universe already belongs to him. He does not need a better reputation than he already has to get what he wants; Jesus is innocent of sin, pure, and holy. Tying up the devil is one way to steal sinners from him, but taking the identity of sinners appears to be more than even Jesus would want to do.

Yet “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (II Corinthians 5:21). Though he was innocent, Jesus was treated as guilty of all sins. Hanging on the cross, he suffered and died as payment for all the sins of history. His Father abandoned him in the darkness, allowing Christ to know that separation that sin places between God and the sinner. The curtain in the Temple was torn as a sign of the removal of our sins, reconciliation in place of the division that we had caused by our sins.

Jesus has stolen our identities. But, like a careless thief (or, rather, like a generous thief), Jesus has left something behind. He has left his righteousness for us, so we can assume his identity. He stole our identities “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (I Corinthians 5:21). God the Father looked at his Son on the cross and saw sin. He looks at us today and sees the righteousness of his Son. In Baptism our sinful selves die with Christ and are buried with Christ. In Baptism we are raised with Christ as a new creation. In Baptism God says of us what he said of Jesus: “This is my Son. This is the one I love. With this one I am well pleased.”

Do you miss your old sinful identity? Instead, rejoice that Jesus has taken away that identity. He has stolen it from you to give you what you do not deserve: his identity. Made a child of God, you are now royalty in the Kingdom that will last forever. Jesus did this for you, not because you deserve it, but because he loves you. J

First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part four

Tony was still doing his best to give Susanna a hard time at work. He had updated his song selection to “Wake Up, Little Suzie” and “Susie-Q.” Every day he criticized her wardrobe selections, saying, “Mighty colorful today—are you trying to catch someone’s attention?” and, “How can you keep your balance on heels that high? And why would you even bother to try?” Conrad actually agreed with Tony about the heels, but he would never confront a woman about her clothing, especially not in front of other people. Susanna did not show any irritation at Tony’s ribbing. Sometimes she forced a small giggle at one of his comments. Usually she waved her hand at him or simply ignored him.

Conrad was also not bold enough to rise to Susanna’s defense. He wanted to tell Tony to leave her alone, to stop being such a bully, but instead he suffered in silence.

He tried to find ways to start little conversations with Susanna, but most days “Good morning” was as far as they got. On Mondays he would try, “How was your weekend?” but Susanna replied with one-word answers such as “fine” or “OK.” She wasn’t unfriendly toward him; it was clear that she just didn’t want to talk.

She opened up to Tina, though. The two of them conversed about Netflix and recipes and their cats. With his back to the conversation, Conrad was able to listen while he appeared to be working. He loved the timbre of Susanna’s alto voice and the jingle of her laugh when it was sincere, not forced. He resented the Saturdays and Sundays when he didn’t see her or hear her voice. Constantly he waited for the clue that she was ready to accept the offer of a date.

Then, one Friday morning as the women were visiting, Tina said, “Oh, by the way, how was dinner last night?”

“The food was just OK,” Susanna answered. “The company was not as bad as I feared. He can be decent and polite and gentlemanly when he tries; he just doesn’t seem to want to try too often.”

Conrad tried not to jump to conclusions. Susanna might have gone out to eat with her father or brother or some other family member. But in his heart he was convinced that she had had her first date in a long time, and obviously that date had not included him.

About a week later, Tina asked a similar question—“How was the movie?”

“It seemed long,” Susanna admitted. “I guess I’m just not into car chases and explosions and ten minute fights that devastate an entire city.” Conrad knew which movie she was describing. It was new to the theaters that month.

Tony happened to be walked toward the door when Susanna spoke. He stopped and looked at her. “I’m sure that when you choose the movie,” he said, “it’s going to be some girly romance with mushy music and long gazes into each other’s eyes, and I’ll be bored stiff.”

She looked up at him, a twinkle in her eye. “I hadn’t planned on such a movie,” she said, “but if that’s how you feel, then that’s what I’m going to choose.”

Tony imitated Susanna’s way of waving away an insult and went on his way. Conrad sat stiff in his chair, staring at the monitor. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Susanna dart a guilty glance in his direction, but he might have imagined it. He tried to focus on his work, but his mouth was dry and his heart was dancing in the middle of his chest. “Why Tony?” he asked himself again and again. “What could she possibly see in him?”

A few minutes later, Susanna grabbed her coffee mug and headed to the break room. A few seconds later, Conrad followed. He was relieved to see that no one else was in the room when he got there.

“I know it’s none of my business,” Conrad began, and a truer statement had never left his mouth. “But I have to know… did I just overhear that you and Tony went to a movie together?”

“Well, yes,” she said, and she looked down at the floor. Her cheeks were beginning to turn rosy.

“Didn’t you tell me a couple weeks ago that you aren’t ready yet for that sort of thing?”

“I didn’t want you to know,” she admitted. “I’m sorry you overheard. Honestly, I would never want to hurt your feelings.”

“I just don’t understand. How can you be ready to see a movie with Tony but not ready to see one with me?”

“I don’t want to have to answer that—please,” she begged. Her rosy cheeks were now glowing bright red, and a tear welled out of her right eye.

Conrad knew that he was probably making a big mistake, but he persisted. “I think I have a right to know.”

Susanna set her mug on the counter next to the coffeemaker. “Look,” she said, “It’s this way. I accepted a date with Tony because I knew what to expect—a night out on the town, nothing more. For that, yes, I’m ready. And if he wanted anything more, it would be easy to tell him no.

“But with you…” she shook her head. “With you it’s different. I’m not ready to get involved quite yet, not ready for a serious relationship.” She looked up at him, “When I’m ready for a man in my life, a real man, I promise to let you know.” She turned, filled her mug, and went back to her desk.

Conrad stood in the middle of the break room for several minutes, staring out the window.

 

More about the last enemy

One week ago I attended the funeral of a friend. He had battled severe mental health issues for the past ten years. In the end, he ended his life by his own hands.

The church was filled to capacity. Like most of the people who came, I tried to say a few words of comfort to the family of the deceased. His father remarked to me that they had nearly lost him this way on two earlier occasions. I think that, even in his shock and his sorrow, the young man’s father was able to treasure the time the two of them had shared.

What does one say at the funeral of a person who has committed suicide? The preacher was magnificent. He began his sermon by expressing his own regrets, his own fears that he had not been a good enough pastor, not persistent enough in reaching out to the deceased. He went on to say that he expected that many of us—family members, friends, co-workers—felt the same sense of guilt, of not having done enough. He assured us that whatever mistakes we had made, whatever sins we had committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He then also assured us that the same is true of the man whose death we mourned. Whatever mistakes he made and whatever sins he committed, God’s forgiveness covers them all. He reminded us (and quoted to us) the Scripture promises of unconditional forgiveness and of a resurrection to eternal life in a better world—a perfect world.

Christians find it hard to talk about suicide. We never want to appear to approve of suicide, to treat it as less than sinful. We want to discourage any person from committing the sin of murdering one’s self. At the same time, we want to be careful not to speak of suicide as an unforgiveable sin. The only unforgiveable sin is refusing to repent and rejecting God’s forgiveness. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit, who works through the Word of God and his blessings to bring people to repentance and to faith.

How can one repent of suicide after succeeding in the act? God’s forgiveness is not limited to the sins we remember to list when we repent and confess our sins. Like the Psalm, we pray, “Forgive my hidden faults.” In the model prayer Jesus taught, we pray for forgiveness; and God’s forgiveness, won for us at the cross, covers all our sins.

God’s forgiveness and our faith are not a series of events. They are a continuing relationship. A Christian who dies in his or her sleep is not lost because of the inability to confess faith while sleeping. A person who slips into senility is not lost, no matter what words or actions occur during the months or years of sickness before death. A Christian battling mental illness who, in a minute of weakness, causes his or her own death is not lost to God forever. The act of suicide is a sin, but Jesus paid for even that sin by offering his own life as a sacrifice on the cross. As the letter to the Romans assures us, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

From the beginning of the sermon to the end of the service, tears welled out of my eyes. (I cannot remember the last time I cried in public—it was a long time ago.) I grieved, but not like those who have no hope. Death is our enemy, but death is already a conquered enemy. Jesus has defeated death, and he shares his victory with us all. I will see my friend again at the resurrection on the Last Day, and both of us will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

The last enemy

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (I Corinthians 15:26). The devil, the world, and the flesh are traditionally the three enemies of God and of God’s people, but death is also an enemy. Some people try to be philosophical about death, treating it as an inevitable part of life, but the Bible clearly states that death is an enemy, albeit an enemy already conquered by Jesus Christ and forced to serve God’s purposes.

Usually when we speak of death, we mean the physical death of a living body. In a broader sense, every unpleasant separation is a death. Christians speak of spiritual death–separation of a person from God, physical death–separation of the soul from the body, and eternal death–being spiritually dead when also physically dead. In a similar sense, divorce can be regarded as the death of a marriage. Friendships can die, careers can die, and hopes can die. Every unwanted ending is a sort of death and also a reminder of the reality of our enemy, death.

God told Adam that, when Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he would die. Adam lived another 930 years after eating that fruit, but he and Eve experienced spiritual death in the garden, as is shown by their desire to hide from God. When Lazarus was sick, Jesus told his disciples that the sickness would not end in death. Lazarus physically died, but because of his trust in Jesus he was not in jeopardy of eternal death. In fact, to show his power over death, Jesus called Lazarus back to life.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul wrote. Every sin is part of spiritual death, separating the sinner from God. Physical death is likewise a result of sin; had Adam and Eve never sinned, they would have lived forever. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus before raising Lazarus, because Jesus was facing an enemy, one he would soon battle and defeat on the cross. Christians are right to be saddened by death, although we are reminded not to grieve like people who have no hope. We have hope for ourselves and for our fellow believers in Christ. We are guaranteed the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

While Jesus was on the cross, the thief being crucified next to Jesus confessed his faith, declaring that Jesus was innocent of any crime and asking that Jesus would remember him when he came into his Kingdom. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus replied, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Later, facing his own death, Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” From these words of Jesus, we know what happens at the death of a Christian. The soul leaves the body and is with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of the Father. This is a spiritual existence; it is not yet the new creation with pearly gates and streets of gold. While it is better to leave the body and be with the Lord, the best is still to come.

On a Day known only to God, Jesus will suddenly appear. The spirits of all believers who have died will be with him. At the command of Jesus all dead bodies will rise for judgment. The spirits of Christians will be united with their bodies, which will have been raised and healed. Even birth defects will be healed at this time. All eyes and ears and legs and minds will work properly, and Jesus will welcome all those who trusted in him to their new home, a re-created Earth that will be as good as it was when God first made it.

How can sinners hope to have that eternal life when their sins have separated them from God? Jesus paid the necessary price to cancel that separation and to reconcile sinners to the Lord. He lived a sinless life, but he transferred the rewards earned by that life to everyone who trusts his promises. In that exchange, Jesus paid for every sinner, enduring spiritual death on the cross. In the darkness of that separation, Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew that the answer to his question was that he was bearing on himself all the sins of the world; but his prayer (a quote from Psalm 22) demonstrates his agony at the separation from his Father that was caused by sin.

Having defeated the devil and the world and the flesh and death itself, Jesus physically died. On the Sabbath he rested–his body in a grave, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. On Sunday morning, Jesus rose, body and soul reunited. His resurrection promises our resurrection on the Day Jesus appears in glory. Death, the enemy, has been defeated. It must now serve God’s purposes as Jesus–the Good Shepherd–leads his people through the valley of the shadow of death so they can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. J.

First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part three

As she had promised, Susanna met Conrad at his home the next morning to drive him to work. Conrad had pondered how to open a conversation with Susanna, now that he had learned part of her history at the hospital. After exchanging greetings, while she drove, Conrad ventured a question. “If you don’t mind me asking, how did you get back into school after your time away?”

 

“I don’t mind,” she replied cheerfully, and on the way to work she gave him a thorough account of how her life got back on track after the sudden death of the man she had expected to marry. Conrad followed up with questions about her experience getting a job out of school and how she felt about the IT department at the company. Susanna did not seem shy about sharing her feelings about the job, even making it clear that she saw it as a stepping stone toward a specialized position at a larger firm.

 

She parked next to Conrad’s car, and Conrad was relieved to see that the car had been unmolested during the night. Fear for the safety of his car was a frequent part of Conrad’s life–since he was renting his home, his car was his largest investment. Ever since high school, Conrad had been in the habit of approaching his car with the eyes of an inspector, checking for dents, scratches, flat tires, or any other problem. Although this was a healthy habit, Conrad didn’t like the racing heart and churning stomach that often accompanied the inspection. In much the same way, he always made sure to leave home with his work badge, laying it on the passenger seat next to him and checking two or three times on the way to work that it was in car. And he never got out of his car without squeezing his set of keys in his hand to assure himself that he was not locking them in the car.

 

Such diligence in small matters made Conrad a good employee in the IT department, but it also made him socially awkward. Small talk was a chore for him, and teasing or flirting were out of the question. He could plan conversations in his head, but somehow they never happened the way he imagined. Now, as they walked together from the parking lot, Conrad marveled that Susanna was still maintaining the conversation, which had now shifted to the topic of weather, of where in the country she would live if she had her choice of jobs in any climate.

 

Once they reached the IT department, the flow of words stopped. Susanna settled herself quietly into place at her desk. Several coworkers, including the manager, stopped to check on Conrad’s health. The workday began, and Conrad and Susanna quickly focused on their tasks. Conrad thought about trying to join Susanna for lunch, but she slipped away before he could make the offer. Likewise, at the end of the workday, she escaped out the door and made it to her car before Conrad could join her, thank her again for the ride, or even wish her a pleasant evening.

 

The next week, IT staff had to travel around the building, checking on computers, updating programs, and removing illicit links and files. Conrad was amused by the kind of material company workers uploaded–anything from puzzles and games to pornography, as well as shopping sites and personal documents. IT staff generally deleted such material without comment and without reporting the offenses. If a file was innocent and did not use a lot of computer storage, Conrad was generous about leaving it alone–a file of family photographs, for example, or a draft of a short story. Items that suggested a waste of company time or a strain on the company’s bandwidth or storage capacities had to go. Conrad frequently emptied workers’ recycle bins and their “deleted email message” folders. Shortcuts to Facebook and other social media were also taboo. Many of these tasks could be done through remote access to a computer by way of the company’s network, but occasional personal visits sometimes caught hidden material on the work computers, and they also subtly reminded employees that the computers were company property and not for personal use.

 

The manager sent IT workers on these clean-up missions in teams of two. Confrontations over company policy were greatly reduced when the IT staff did not arrive solo. Conrad’s partner was a congenial young man named Keith; he had a beard and a pony tail. Susanna was paired with Tony.

 

Because of these excursions, Conrad scarcely saw Susanna for three days, apart from a brief “good morning” at the start of the day. Wednesday afternoon, though, as Keith and Conrad entered the IT office, Conrad saw Susanna at her desk with no one nearby. He waited until Keith had gone further into the room, and then he stood next to her desk and spoke her name.

 

Susanna looked up and smiled at him. “How is your week going?” she asked. He knew that she was mainly asking about the clean-up tasks, but he dared to answer in a different vein.

 

“Lonely,” he said, “but I’m used to that. Listen,” he continued bravely, “I was wondering if you might be free tonight. We could do something together, maybe dinner or a movie….”

 

She smiled again but shook her head. “I’m afraid tonight will not be convenient,” she told him.

 

“Well, tomorrow night, then? Or maybe some time over the weekend.”

 

“Conrad,” she answered, “you’re sweet to ask, but I’m going to have to say no. I’m sorry, but I’m just not ready for that. Not yet.”

 

“I understand,” Conrad assured her. His heart had sunk when she said no, but it soared with the promise of her words, “not yet.” With that crumb of hope, Conrad could be patient for a long time.

Know your enemy–the flesh

Adam said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Eve said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Flip Wilson used to say, “The devil made me do it.”

As much as we would like to blame the devil or the sinful world for our mistakes–our sins–we must confess that each sin is a deliberate act, a result of a choice which we have made. The devil and the world are God’s enemies, and they tempt us to join their rebellion. Sometimes we resist temptation, but often we give in to temptation and do the wrong thing instead of the right thing.

Paul wrestled with this tendency in his letter to the Romans, chapter seven. He wrote, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” In language that would inspire Sigmund Freud’s depiction of the ego, the superego, and the id, Paul insisted that part of his person was evil, making the wrong choices, doing the wrong thing. Even though Paul knew God’s commandments and wanted to obey them, his flesh continued making him do the wrong things.

As with the word “world” in the Bible, so the word “flesh” has more than one meaning. When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, he did not become a sinner. But when Paul speaks of his flesh, he describes a sinful nature. I do not want to debate the origin of that sinful nature. It suffices that the flesh exists. John knew that the flesh is real. He wrote, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Even Christians sin. We sin every day. The devil, the world, and our flesh confront us every day until the day we die or until the Day Jesus appears in glory, whichever comes first.

We do not alternate between being sinners and being saints. At every time each of us is a sinner who needs a Savior and is a saint who knows the Savior. The sins we commit show that we are sinners, but our faith is in Christ Jesus. The Bible describes the work he has accomplished as our Savior. The Bible promises that through the work of Jesus we are forgiven all our sins and have victory over all our enemies.

This forgiveness and victory give no one license to sin. Since our flesh was conquered by Jesus on the cross, we do not want to strengthen it or encourage it by following its suggestions. Yet, as Paul and John remind us, we still are under control of the flesh. The flesh that was drowned in Baptism continues to bob to the surface and inhale another gasp. When we look at ourselves, we see the flesh and can find no hope of salvation. Only when we look to Christ do we understand that we are already rescued, that we are already forgiven, and that we are more than conquerors over the devil, over the world, and over our flesh.

Acknowledging the reality of our flesh is called “repentance.” We repent not only of specific sins, but also of a sinful nature that makes us God’s enemies. The Holy Spirit guides our repentance through the commandments of God as he also builds our faith through the promises of God. Therefore, the devil and the world and the flesh battle against the Spirit. They entice us with temptations; and when we sin, they strike us with guilt. Guilt from the Spirit moves us to repent, but guilt from our enemies makes us doubt God’s promises. Like a dog dragging the trash from the curb back into the house, our flesh stirs up memories of past sins and renews our sense of guilt. When that happens, we are free to resist. We remind our flesh that every sin is already forgiven by God and even forgotten by God. God cannot lie. He is so powerful that anything he says becomes true. God says we are forgiven. God says we are saints. God says we are his children. When we remember and repeat what God says, we battle effectively against the devil, the world, and our flesh. J.

Eros and Psyche and Ted and Alice

Beauty and the Beast. The Phantom of the Opera. My Fair Lady.  The story is told repeatedly: a mature man becomes some sort of mentor to a young woman; over time an awkward romance blossoms out of the relationship. Sometimes the awkward romance involves a love triangle (Phantom-Christine-Raoul, or Henry Higgins-Eliza Doolittle-Freddie). This seems to be the more modern approach. For Beauty and the Beast, her love and loyalty to her father forms the triangle rather than any romance with a peer. The central figure, though, is always the mature male who is molding some portion of the young woman’s life to meet his standards and who then comes to view her entirely as his.

Henry Higgins wants Eliza to talk and act as a woman of high society. The Phantom wants Christine to sing as a well-trained soprano. The Beast wants Beauty to look beyond appearances and to have compassion, even affection, toward the misshapen.

The oldest version of this story, so far as I know, is the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. Psyche is a beautiful young woman—so beautiful that men admire her from afar but are too frightened of her beauty to woo her. Eros sets out to fix her problem, but he falls in love with her himself. Even though he marries her, she is never allowed to see him; he comes to her only in the darkness of night. When her sisters (There’s the completion of the triangle.) tell her that her situation is too weird, she lights a candle to view him while he sleeps. She feared that he would be a monster, but he turns out to be achingly handsome. After all, he is a god. A drop from the candle falls and awakens him, and he flees from her; she must accomplish various impossible tasks before the couple can be reunited.

From a god to a hideous beast—or a deformed man living in the cellar and pretending to be a ghost—or a misanthropic linguist. Somehow this man is transformed by the presence of a vulnerable and shapeable young woman, and he learns that he needs her to make his life complete. Is this not a common male fantasy? And what does the young woman receive in exchange? She seeks a mentor, a teacher, or merely a host to take care of her. The last thing she wants is a lover, at least not one who is far older than she is and rather unattractive in other ways to boot.

Though much of the story remains the same, the ending varies. Beauty and the Beast find true love. Eliza spurns Freddie and returns to Henry Higgins (but only after he confesses to himself that he has “grown accustomed to her face”). Christine escapes the Phantom, who either disappears or dies, depending upon which version of the story you are following. At least Christine has Raoul, and Beauty still has her father. One wonders what will happen to Eliza; after a long diatribe on equal rights for women, the story ends with Henry Higgins demanding that she find his slippers in a tone reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

This male fantasy, this cautionary tale for young women, has its roots in a culture in which women became wives while still in their teens, but men had to show that they could earn a living and support a family before they married, often in their late twenties or early thirties. Marriages were arranged, and romance generally was not a factor in the arrangement. The blossoming of romantic tales took place in medieval France, tales in which a woman typically garners romantic love from a man who is not her husband. (Think of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, and Sir Lancelot.) Beauty and the Beast is not as old a story; it was written in the 1700s, and its usual form is known from the Blue Fairy Book of 1889. Perhaps that explains why that version of Eros and Psyche could include a marriage based on love, in which husband and wife live happily ever after. J.

Know your enemy–the world

Although some people blame the devil for all the problems of the world, he is not capable of causing that much evil. He is not almighty like God, nor is he present everywhere like God. However, the devil has help in his rebellion against God and against all that is good. Traditionally, Christians speak of three enemies that work together to oppose the will of God. They are the devil, the world, and our flesh.

In the Bible, the word “world” can be used in different ways, just as the word “heaven” has several different meanings. The world that works with the devil and opposes God’s will is not the same world that God loves so much that he sent his Son to redeem the world. The world that needs redemption consists of sinners, and so does the world that opposes God’s will, but the sinners who oppose God’s will are using what they have to tempt other people to sin.

This sinful world includes politicians, entertainers, and many other kinds of people. The world confuses selfishness with love and composes poems and songs that talk about love as a feeling people can catch or lose. The world also includes schoolchildren who encourage one another to steal from the store or to try illegal drugs. The world includes parents who set bad examples for their children. The world even includes children who shock their parents by repeating profanities that they heard at school or on television or from the mouths of their parents.

Any material thing that might tempt you to sin is part of this sinful world. We cannot avoid temptations, so we must resist them. Even Jesus was tempted in every way, as we are, but he did not sin. A saying about temptation has existed for hundreds of years: “You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” Whenever a Christian enjoys temptation and keeps returning to situations where he or she might be tempted again, that Christian has already crossed the line into sin.

We resist temptation from the world in the same way that we resist temptation from the devil: we stand on the Word of God. God’s Word tells us what is right and what is wrong; God’s Word teaches us what we should do and what we should not do. God’s Word also promises forgiveness to sinners. Tempters from the world might say, “Why don’t you do this thing that you used to do?” The power of God’s forgiveness sets us free from sinful ways; we do not have to remain slaves of sin after God has set us free.

In some places the world’s powers persecute Christians. In many more places, the world’s powers tolerate Christians while trying to seduce us away from faith. Jesus wants us to stand firmly on his Word, and he gives us the power to remain firm. The world may be stronger than we are, but the world is not stronger than God. Through him we are always safe, even while living in the world. J.

First Friday Fiction–Susanna, part two

No one in the office had ever heard Susanna shout. When she spoke at all, she spoke in a quiet voice. Her coworkers were startled one morning when she called out, “Somebody call 9-1-1!” It took a couple of seconds for anyone even to think to ask why they should call the emergency number.

Only Susanna had noticed when Conrad collapsed. Perhaps the odd movement caught her eye, or perhaps she had been glancing his direction more often lately. Conrad’s body turned limp, and he began to slide off his chair onto the floor under his desk. Before his head could hit the floor, Susanna was at his side. She pushed away his chair and eased him into a flat position on the floor. She checked his neck for a pulse, which she noticed was rapid and weak, but regular. Next she watched to make sure that he was breathing. He was.

She heard the voice of one of the other men in the office talking to the emergency dispatcher over the telephone. As three or four concerned workers gathered around, she waved them back. “Give him some air,” she pleaded.

Conrad’s eyelids flickered. Then he opened his eyes and began to sit up. “What happened?” he asked groggily.

“You fainted,” she told him. Putting her hand on his shoulder, she pressed him back to the floor. “Lie still,” she said. “Help is on the way.”

“I’m sure I’m fine,” Conrad started to say, but she interrupted him. “I said lie still. You are going to be checked out to make sure that you’re fine. I lost one friend this way—I’m not going to lose another.”

In stunned silence, the sound of an approaching siren could be heard. “You!” she commanded, pointing at Tony. “Go down to the door and guide them up here. They mustn’t waste a second!”

Susanna took Conrad’s hand and squeezed it. “You are going to make it,” she promised him.

Conrad was already feeling stronger. He decided to try a little joke. “If I don’t,” he whispered, “I just wish… I just wish I had spent more time at the office.” No one laughed, but it seemed to Conrad that
Susanna relaxed slightly.

Less than two minutes later, three paramedics were tending to Conrad. “Do you know your name?” one of them asked him. “Do you know what day this is?” Conrad answered both questions correctly. Another paramedic was checking his pulse and counting his heartbeats. “What happened?” the first paramedic asked.

“I guess I fainted,” Conrad said sheepishly. One minute I was at my desk, working, and the next minute I was lying on the floor.” He paused and confessed, “During the night I got up and was sick, and I didn’t think my stomach could handle breakfast this morning.”

The paramedic nodded and gently pinched the skin on Conrad’s arm. “Dehydration,” he announced. “Probably nothing serious, but we’ll still get you to the hospital for a complete check-up.”

“Really—I’m fine,” Conrad protested, but they seemed to ignore his words. They had a stretcher which folded into a chair which would fit in the elevator. As they carefully moved Conrad onto the stretcher, Susanna grabbed her purse. “I’ll follow you to the hospital,” she told them.

Of course the ambulance took Conrad straight to the emergency room entrance. Susanna had to find a parking spot, then find the public entry, and from there try to find Conrad. When she admitted that she was not part of his family, they were reluctant to allow her back to see him. He remembered her promise, though, and asked about her, and soon she was with him.

One machine was monitoring his heart, while another was pumping fluid into his arm. Susanna had no medical training, but on the heart monitor she could see that Conrad’s heart was pumping thoroughly and regularly. He also seemed less pale than he had been when he was lying on the office floor.

She took his hand. “You gave us all a little scare there.”

He smiled weakly. “Sorry about that. I guess I should take better care of myself.”

She smiled back. “I guess you should.”

Conrad squeezed her hand and said, “Can I ask you a question?” She nodded, and he asked, “Back at work you said you had lost a friend this way. Please tell me what happened.”

She drew her breath in sharply, and Conrad thought he had made a mistake. After she let the air out slowly she took another breath. No longer smiling, she said, “I guess I can talk about it.

“We were both in college—our last year, about to graduate. We weren’t officially engaged, but we were making plans as if we were. We both knew what jobs we wanted to have, and we hoped that we found jobs in the same city, because that would make it easy for us to get married right away.

“He was on the football team. They were having a practice, a normal practice, getting ready for one of the last games of the season. It was just an ordinary practice, nothing strenuous, but he suddenly collapsed on the field. They rushed him to the hospital, but he was dead when they got him there.

“Something was wrong with his heart. He had probably been born with a weakness in his heart, but no one ever knew it.” Susanna closed her eyes and tried to hold back the tears, but they flowed all the same.

“I’m sorry,” Conrad said. I shouldn’t have asked.”

Susanna shook her head. When she could speak, she said, “It’s good for me to talk about it. I’ve held it in too long. I’ve been frightened of what would happen to be when I finally came to terms with it.”

“It must have been a terrible shock to you—and to his family and everyone who knew him.”

“It was. I took it very hard. The night after his funeral, I got drunk and walked down the middle of the road, screaming and cursing at all the drivers who swerved to miss me. I wanted them to hit me. I wanted to be dead and buried, just like him.”

“How awful!”

Susanna looked Conrad in the eyes. “I was messed up for a couple of years. I dropped out of school and spent days in my bedroom binging on movies. I would go days without food and then fill up on sweets. My parents told each other to be patient, I’d snap out of it. Instead, I kept making myself more miserable with bad choices. Then, finally, I… I….”

An older nurse had been in and out of the medical bay as Susanna told Conrad about her past. When Susanna burst into tears, the nurse wrapped her arms around her and spoke soothingly to her. “I(t’s alright now, Honey. Don’t let it bother you. Things will be fine from now on.”

It took a couple of minutes for Susanna to regain control of herself. “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping tears off her face. “I guess being in a hospital again is bringing back a lot of memories.”

“Well for now,” the nurse said to her, “talk about something more pleasant. The doctor is going to be back in a few minutes to check on your friend, and I have a feeling he’ll be allowed to go home. So—you see?—everything’s not so bad.”

“Yes, let’s talk about something else,” Conrad agreed.

“But one thing before we change the subject,” Susanna interjected. “You won’t say anything about all this to anybody at work, will you?”

“Of course not,” Conrad promised. “If you knew me better, you wouldn’t have to ask.”

As the nurse had promised, the doctor was soon checking on Conrad. “You don’t seem to be in any danger,” the doctor said. “If you can go home and stay quiet for the rest of the day, and get plenty of fluids, you should be fine.”

“I’ll drive you home,” Susanna told him, “and I can pick you up tomorrow and bring you to work.”

And that is what they did.

 

To be continued… but I don’t know when… I don’t even know what happens next. J.