Book report

I recently finished reading a science fiction novel; portions of it contained black comedy of a sort. In the plot, the United States has just emerged from a horrible and destructive war. The survivors of the war decide to find a new use for the technology that was developed to fight the war. After brief consideration, they decide to use this new technology to explore outer space.

Of course, if this novel had been written any time after 1960, the plot would be a retelling of current events. Rocket technology was developed by the Germans during World War II to bombard the United Kingdom. At the end of the war, Soviet forces and American forces both sought to capture the German scientists who had developed those rockets. At first the technology was improved only to prepare for another war, as the Cold War was intensifying. By the 1960s, though, both sides were seeing nonmilitary advantages to their respective space programs. In particular, the United States chose the challenge of bringing a man to the moon and returning him to the earth, aiming to achieve that goal before the 1960s ended. In July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins made that historic journey, lifting off in their rocket from the Florida coast and traveling all the way to the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin both walked on the moon, conducted scientific experiments, and commemorated their achievement. They even spoke with President Nixon, who joked about the longest long-distance phone call in history.

The novel I read, From the Earth to the Moon, was written and published by Jules Verne in 1865. The war in question was the Civil War, and the technology he described was an enormous and powerful cannon. The Baltimore Gun Club resolves to fire a giant cannon ball at the moon. As plans are made for the cannon and cannonball, a French poet volunteers to be a passenger inside the missile. In the end, three men encase themselves in the cannonball, which is gently lowered into a specially built cannon, located on the Florida coast, and the three of them are shot to the moon.

Jules Verse was one of science fiction’s earliest authors. He liked to write travel novels. (His best is Around the World in Eighty Days.) When considering voyages that had never been attempted, such as one to the moon, he carefully considered just how it could be done, down to the smallest details. He had no conception of liquid-fueled rockets like those that would be used by Soviet and American explorers. Verne’s giant cannon and cannonball would not have worked. In many other aspects of his story, though, Verne captured a historic event and described it well… one hundred years before it took place. J.

Advertisements

Close My Eyes

I wrote yesterday that I’ve only addressed one Cathy by name in a song. I chose my words carefully. A person bearing one of the names in the first sentence of yesterday’s post has been the subject of a song I wrote, but the song does not include her name.

We were co-workers for a while—more than four years—but more days have passed since I last saw her than took place while we worked together. Both of us moved from desk to desk in the company for various reasons, but there was a long stretch of time when our desks were close enough for us to talk with each other (and for me to overhear her conversations with other people). Suffice it to say that she was (probably still is) a nice person, a thoroughly competent and efficient worker, a ray of sunlight in the workday. I was stunned when she announced to the company that she had taken a job with another employer. After she left, I missed her even more than I had expected. From that experience, though, I did come to write a song. It has a bouncy tune, reminiscent of Boyce and Hart. Without any further ado, here it is:

 

Late at night I’m lyin’ in bed/                                      And I close my eyes

Pictures of you crash through my head/                 And my heart cries; my heart cries

I can’t believe you left me here/                                Each day or night I dream of you, dear

And since you’ve gone, I only bring you near/      When I close my eyes; I close my eyes

 

I’m sitting outside on the ground/                            And I close my eyes

And thoughts of you crash all around/                     And my heart cries; my heart cries

The birds can flutter, chirp, and sing/                      And joyfully announce the spring

But thoughts of you block everything/                    When I close my eyes; I close my eyes

 

You didn’t have to leave, you know/                        My love for you would only grow

And ever since you went away/                                 I fight to make it through the day

And night or day I always seem/                                 To picture you as in a dream

I reach for you and my soul tries/                              To draw you near when I close my                                                                                                       eyes; I close my eyes

 

I’m driving down the road, you see/                        And I close my eyes

I crash my car into a tree/                                          And sirens cry; I hear sirens cry

I should have kept them open wide/                        And paid attention to the ride

Instead of wanting you by my side/                          To close my eyes. Please close my eyes

I should have kept them open wide/                        And paid attention to the ride

Instead of wanting you by my side/                          To close my eyes. Close my eyes

 

J.

 

Cathy: the musical

I’ve known many Cathys over the years—Catherine, Katherine, Kathryn, and Kathleen, among others—but I’ve only addressed one of them by name in a song. Oddly, she’s probably the Cathy I’ve known the least well.

I was a graduate student, and I had taken an evening job as a security guard at a local business. My assigned duty was to sit in a guard shack at the entrance to a parking lot, checking vehicles in and out. How I spent my time in that shack when no vehicle needed my attention was up to me. I did most of my schoolwork in that shack: reading and research, writing rough drafts of papers I would then type back on campus, even some writing of fiction. The day I accepted the job, I signed a paper saying that anything I produced on company time belonged to the company. Fortunately, they never asked for copies of my school papers or my short stories. They remain in my private collection to this day.

Even though the job was not stressful, the company was required to give me a break every evening. I spent my break in the main building, often buying a snack at the company canteen. I spent time visiting other workers also taking a break at the canteen. One of them was a young petite blonde named Cathy. I only met her three or four times. I don’t know her last name, her position with the company, or anything else about her. All I learned from her was that she had an abusive boyfriend who didn’t deserve her love or her attention. She’d given him one last chance more than once, and she knew he shouldn’t get any more chances. Yet, for some reason she couldn’t identify, she was still with him.

Back on campus, I wrote a song about her situation. I wrote it from her boyfriend’s point of view. From what she had said, I believed that he was a jerk and a loser, yet somehow I was able to put myself in his shoes. Somehow, that song has become a signature song in my repertoire. When I entertain myself in the evenings by strumming my guitar and caterwauling, “Cathy” is usually my closing number. It requires a bit more energy than my other songs, and the melody challenges my range. For years, though, the song about a man I never met based on the little his girlfriend said about him has become one of my favorite songs. At one time, I even changed the words of the chorus to make it a Pepsi commercial.

Here are the lyrics: the chorus first, and then both of the verses. The chorus repeats between the verses and at the end of the song, and there is also a long instrumental interlude.

CATHY

Cathy, don’t be afraid;

Don’t give up quite so soon.

Cathy, stay one more day

Before you leave on your own.

We still have a chance;

Please don’t throw it away.

Cathy, stay one more day

Before we go it alone.

 

I know that I’ve been a fool.

I’ve made it hard on us both.

When you needed me, I was cruel.

Why that was, I still don’t know.

All I know is I’m sorry now

If you’ll give me a chance to prove it;

And if you want to know how,

Just give me a chance, and I’ll do it.

 

 

The first time you went away

I thought it was a joke.

I barely lived ‘til the day

You came back to renew my hope.

I swore it wouldn’t happen again;

Time has made me a liar.

Give me one more chance and then

I’ll set your heart on fire.

 

J.

 

Three unrelated thoughts

Much of my spare time this week has been spent proof-reading (or “copy-editing,” as they say in The Biz) my book about the parables Jesus told. I am hoping for a March 1 publication deadline. Because I have updated to Word 2016 since my last big project, I am receiving more editing suggestions from Word. Some of them meet with my approval; in other cases I disagree with Word.

Word does not like the phrase “whether or not.” After further review, I agree with Word that “whether” is sufficient in most cases.

Word suggests a comma after introductory words or phrases such as “therefore,” “of course,” and “so.” Those pauses seem unnatural to me, so I am largely ignoring those suggestions. I find it helpful, though, that Word is underlining them for me; it helps me to see where I have used such phrases too frequently and should remove them or rephrase sentences to make them unnecessary.

As in previous editions, Word 2016 dislikes the passive voice and suggests shifting to an active voice. While this shift might be appropriate in most literature, it can be very inappropriate in theology. A redeemed sinner is entirely passive when it comes to salvation; a sinner’s actions contribute nothing to salvation before being saved, or while being saved, or after being saved. God does all the work to rescue sinners. Until Word produces an edition that is free from heretical tendencies, I plan to continue ignoring its suggestions about eliminating the passive voice.

I only recently became aware of the grammatical suggestion that strings of prepositional phrases be avoided. (The amusing wording of this rule is to ignore them except when one is being led “through the valley of the shadow of death.”) Word 2016 underlines cases where it thinks prepositions are too close together. Unfortunately, this tendency singles out entirely appropriate phrases including “in spite of.”

 

I used some Christmas gift money to buy a DVD of the movie 500 Days of Summer. I did so for two reasons: I enjoy Zooey Deschanel in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and thought I would like to see her star in a romantic comedy; and IMDB recommended 500 Days of Summer to people who liked Ruby Sparks. The movie is enjoyable as it covers a relationship between a young man and a young woman in a nonlinear fashion, more the way he might remember the episodes from a distance rather than experiencing them in order. As a narrator intones at the very beginning of the movie, it is “not a love story.” In fact, it is far more realistic than most love stories. Unfortunately, both 500 Days of Summer and Ruby Sparks seem incapable of depicting a romance without suggesting physical intimacy beginning very early in the relationship. I’d like to see a romantic comedy in which the main characters do not go beyond holding hands and an occasional brief kiss. Maybe Hollywood writers believe that such romances no longer happen in the twenty-first century. (If so, they’re wrong.) Maybe Hollywood writers are engaged in a deliberate conspiracy to undermine marriage and family. (It seems that way sometimes, but I suspect their motivations are more financial than centered on social engineering.) I hesitate to recommend any movie that I would be reluctant to show to my parents or my children, but I confess to enjoying 500 Days of Summer and expect to watch it again soon, to catch the details I missed at the first viewing.

 

This morning while I was driving to work, I saw a delivery truck (painted with the 7-UP logo) in the left lane of the street, signaling an attempt to merge into the right lane. Traffic was tight and other drivers were ignoring the truck driver’s signal, but I held back and made a space for the truck to change lanes. As a result, I missed out on a green light and had to wait through the entire cycle of lights at a busy intersection. Later, I left room for a car to enter the street from a side street. It seems as though such courtesies toward other drivers ought to be rewarded with an extra green light or two, but I guess things like that happen only in the karmic pages.

The Consolation of Philosophy

Within the space of a few days, one of my close relatives turned eighteen, another turned fifty-five, and a third turned ninety. The last celebration in particular brought the extended family together around the close of the Christmas season, having a Christmas gift exchange one evening followed by a lavish meal, then assembling in a restaurant the following night, culminated by an open house the next afternoon for friends from the neighborhood and the congregation.

This, then, was how I spent my Christmas vacation, sleeping in the house of a relative and eating food cooked by that same relative. Vacation schedules are always out of step with regular life—especially at this relative’s house, where breakfast is served late in the morning, lunch is served well after noon, and dinner might not reach the table until nine o’clock at night. (At home I usually eat breakfast around seven a.m., lunch at 11:30 or noon, and dinner at 5:30 or 6 p.m.) My reading pattern adjusts to fit the new schedule. When I wake up at this relative’s house, I get dressed and grab a cup of coffee, then start the day reading from the Bible and from some devotional book. (At home I often don’t do that reading until after dinner.)

My devotional reading for 2018 is selected portions from the Christian writers of medieval Europe. Many Christians today neglect the medieval writers, skipping from Augustine to Luther, with perhaps a nod toward secular writers like Chaucer. I delight in the literature of the Middle Ages, from the Authurian legends to the songs of the Niebelung (the source material for Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle operas), Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The theologian/philosophers of that time are equally awesome, from the mystics to the scholastics, with many beneficial teachings about the Bible and about Christian living.

So it happened one morning that I was sipping coffee and reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (written in the year 524) while my host studied the morning paper and my hostess was at work in her kitchen. The coming open house was intended to be a stunning display of her home itself, but also of her culinary skills. She was preparing more than a dozen finger foods, from fruit skewered on a stick to fancy hors d’oeuvres like her mother used to make. I had already sifted through family photographs to select dozens of images of the birthday guest at various stages of life, and these were also scattered around the house. Various family members were enlisted at various times to help prepare the food and the house. Furniture had to be rearranged to accommodate the guests and to hold all the food that would be served.

Here is a sample of what I was reading that morning: “Wealth cannot give a man everything and make him entirely self-sufficient, even though this is what money seems to promise. But I think it most important to observe that there is nothing in the nature of wealth to prevent it being taken from those who have it…Therefore, a man needs the help of others to protect his money…But he wouldn’t need it, if he had no money to lose… The situation is upside down, for riches, which are supposed to make men self-sufficient, actually make them dependent on the help of others… Don’t the wealthy become hungry and thirsty; don’t they feel cold in the winter? You may argue that they have the means to satisfy their hunger and thirst and to protect themselves against the cold. Nevertheless, the needs remain, and riches can only minimize them. For if needs are always present and making demands that must be met by spending money, clearly there will always be some need which is unsatisfied… Though the rich man has a flowing torrent of gold, his avarice can never be fully satisfied. He may decorate his neck with oriental pearls and plow his fertile lands with a hundred oxen, but biting care will not leave him during life, and when he dies his wealth cannot go with him.”

A call from the kitchen reminded us that help was needed, certain tasks still needed to be accomplished. My host sighed, set down his Wall Street Journal, and left the room to pull a serving table out of storage. I also set aside my reading for a more opportune time and checked to see how I could be of service. J.

Finding history with a metal detector

Let’s suppose that you got a metal detector for Christmas. You are waiting for the first nice Saturday or Sunday afternoon to take it out and explore with it. You know of a place nearby—maybe a place where a Civil War skirmish was fought—and you are eager to see if you can find some bullets or brass buttons or belt buckles.

Wait! Stop! Don’t do it until you know how to do it right. If you think you can find some stuff and bring it home and show it to people and impress them, you’re probably wrong. In a worst case scenario, you are actually guilty of vandalism and of destroying history.

Step one of the proper way to conduct historical research with a metal detector is to get permission of the owner of the property to search for items there. If the property belongs to a state park or a national park, forget about it—only professional archaeologists will be allowed to search there. On private property or maybe a city park, you may have luck getting permission. If you own the property yourself, you are free to do what you want, but you should still go about things the right way.

Having permission to search, you want to bring more than a metal detector and a shovel. Bring a camera, a pad of paper and a pencil or pen, and a set of small brightly-colored flags (orange is good) numbered from one to whatever.

When you arrive, chose a parcel of ground to search, and photograph it from several angles before you start searching. The “before” pictures are very important to researchers.

Sweep the area with your metal detector, and plant a flag on every spot where you detect an item. Don’t dig yet. When you have finished searching, take more pictures from several directions. Also draw a rough map of the parcel, showing the approximate location of every flag with its number. Your map does not need to be precise—the photographs will help with that—but it should show the relative position of the flags.

Next, one by one, dig up the objects that you found with the metal detector. Try not to move them as you unearth them. As each one becomes visible, take a picture of it where it lies. Try to include the flag in the picture with the number visible. Strive to make it clear exactly how the item is oriented within the parcel—maybe take every picture from the north, or in every picture make sure the flag is to the north of the item. Once you have photographed it in its place, you may remove it, clean it, wrap it, and bring it home.

Now, when a historian or archaeologist studies your items, he or she will be able to create a more complete account of the story they reveal. Knowing where they were in the parcel and how they were lying, the researcher will develop far more information than was possible just looking at the item without any context.

By the same token, let’s suppose that you decide to develop that weed patch or empty bit of lawn behind your house. When you start digging, you find some ancient stone tools, the kind that many people call arrowheads. (Most of them are too big to have been used on arrows. They were probably attached to throwing spears.) You might be tempted to scoop them up, throw them in a box, and show your collection to others later. But once you have moved them, they have lost nearly their entire value, unless you first document exactly how they were situated when they were discovered.

Once again, take some “before” pictures with your camera. Then flag each artifact and take more pictures. Photograph each item as it lies, and then you may carefully remove it. As you continue your project, keep track in the same way of every item you find. Only in this way can you preserve the story of what happened on your land long before you ever bought it and moved onto it.

Of course it would be even better if you invited some professional archaeologists to handle these items for you and for the sake of future researchers. Probably you are unwilling to delay your project for several months until they can work you into their schedule. Working with the discovered items the same way professionals would work with them is your best procedure. History belongs to all of us. Taking the trouble to preserve as much of it as possible is a task which also belongs to all of us. J.

Amen

“Amen.”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? This means that I should be certain that these petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven, and are heard by Him: for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us. Amen, amen means, ‘yes, yes, it shall be so.’”

When we pray the prayer that Jesus teaches us to pray, we are certain that God hears our prayers and answers yes to them all. In private prayer, we expand upon these petitions, considering the names of God, the significance of his kingdom, and what we know of God’s will for our lives and for the world in which we live. We list our daily needs, confess the sins we remember, seek help to forgive people who have sinned against us, describe the temptations we are striving to overcome, and name the evils that threaten our lives and our faith. As we pray these things, we have full confidence that God hears our prayer and has already decided to say yes to everything we ask of him.

Therefore, we close our prayers with the Hebrew word “Amen,” which can mean, “Let it be so,” or, “It shall be so.” The word Amen has no magic value. If a Christian should fall asleep before completing a prayer and saying Amen, the prayer would not fail to be heard and answered. (What can be more beautiful than to fall asleep while resting in the arms of our heavenly Father?” The custom of saying Amen reminds each of us that we pray with confidence, knowing that God hears what we ask and will provide what we want and need, unless he chooses instead to provide something even better.

Jesus sometimes underlined his key teachings by saying, “Amen, amen, I say to you….” The King James translation of the Bible remained fairly literal with that phrase, rendering it, “Verily, verily, I say unto you….” Some recent translations have chosen the more insipid, “I tell you the truth….” Or “Truly I say to you….” A double Amen from the mouth of Jesus assures us of the truth and importance of what he is saying. We also may pray a double Amen when we speak to God the words that Jesus suggested that we pray: “Yes, yes, it shall be so.” J.

 

Doxology

“For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.”

These words are not included in the earliest copies of Matthew’s Gospel, nor does Luther comment upon them. Many Christians pray them, though, as a hymn of praise—a doxology—which matches the opening petition of the Lord’s Prayer, in which we ask that God’s name be hallowed.

The kingdom is God’s. He rules over everything that he created; he is Lord of all that exists. The Church in particular is his kingdom, and his will is to increase that kingdom so more people will dwell in his new creation. That new creation is also his kingdom, which he will rule eternally.

The power is God’s. He is almighty; he can do whatever he chooses. God is so powerful that he cannot lie. Whenever he speaks, what he says happens. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and they are forgiven. He says, “Your sins are gone,” and they are gone, removed as far from us as the east is from the west. He says, “You are my child, and you will live with me forever in a new and perfect creation,” and we know that all these things are true.

The glory is God’s. In the presence of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—Jesus once shone with light while visiting with Moses and Elijah. Yet to Jesus, his true glory is not that he can shine with light or be counted with the heroes of God’s people. His glory far transcends those accomplishments. For Jesus, his true glory is expressed in love, making himself vulnerable on behalf of his people, offering himself as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world.

The kingdom and the power and the glory are his forever—or, as some Christians pray, “forever and ever.” The original Greek expression translates literally as “from the ages into the ages.” God’s kingdom and power and glory never end. They endure into the new creation, and we will experience them fully at the resurrection of the body, when we inherit the fullness of what we already have now: the life everlasting. J.

 

But deliver us from evil

Jesus said, “When you pray, say ‘…But deliver us from evil….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation, and finally, when our last hour comes, give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.”

Salvageable adds: When we are given daily bread, unconditional forgiveness, and guidance for our lives, we should be safe from all evil. Therefore, Luther describes this petition as a summary of the Lord’s Prayer. God’s fatherly nature is determined to keep us safe from evil. His name is kept holy, his kingdom is preserved, and his will is done when we are protected from evil. Even when God chooses to permit evil—as he did with Job’s afflictions, with Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and with the execution of his own Son—God permits that evil so that a greater good can prevail. When a Christian suffers, that suffering reminds the Christian of Christ’s suffering on the cross and of His victory over all evil. When a Christian dies, the body is buried and the spirit travels to Paradise to wait with Jesus and all the saints for the Day of the Lord and the new creation.

The devil and sinners in the world use the existence of evil as an argument against the existence of God or against his goodness. Sometimes the sinful nature still within a Christian is inclined to agree with the devil and sinners. God permits us to see and experience evil, not because he is too weak to prevent it or not good enough to stop it, but because he wants all people to know the difference between good and evil. When we face evil, we begin to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and then God can satisfy us. He satisfies us with the perfect goodness of his Son, which he credits to us even though we have been allies of evil and have taken sides against God by breaking his commands. He satisfies us with the suffering and death of his Son, a battle against evil in which the good side won. Being forgiven, we share in Christ’s victory over evil, knowing that God has chosen us for his team so we can be on the winning side.

Every day God delivers his people from evil. On the Last Day the fullness of his victory will finally be seen in the resurrection of his saints and the dawn of the new creation. From that Day on we will not have to pray for daily bread, daily forgiveness, daily help to forgive others, daily guidance, and daily deliverance from evil. From that Day on we will hallow God’s name, live in his kingdom, and do his will without distraction or interruption. From that Day on we will experience our relationship with God as his children, knowing the love of our heavenly Father and having no reason to doubt his goodness and his power. J.

 

Kathy

Last night being the first of several at my sister’s house for a late Christmas celebration, I slept lightly, and I remembered all of my dreams in the morning. Most of them included the theme of bringing order out of chaos, needing to clean up a large area filled with trash. Sometimes the mess was at work, sometimes at home. Invariably I was aware that a few valuable items were scattered within the trash, and I feared that they would be lost. Most of the other workers in the various dreams seemed content, though, to stand around and converse aimlessly with one another rather than getting involved in the work.

Oddly enough, Kathy appeared in two of those dreams. Kathy and I attended the same elementary school and junior high school, in which we were in the same homeroom. We also attended the same high school, but followed different paths which rarely crossed. She was one of the popular girls—cheerleader, athlete, pep club, and student government. I was involved in the band and orchestra, the school newspaper, and the spring musicals. Kathy was one of the truly attractive girls in junior high and senior high school. She was lovely in appearance, but not vain, gentle in manner, kind without being condescending. She was one of a trio of girls who always sat together at the beginning of the school year, when the teacher organized the desks in alphabetic order. Later in the school year, when the teacher allowed us to choose our own desks, the three friends remained together. Only if the teacher tried to rearrange the seating to split apart friends (for better order in the classroom, or so they said) did those three become scattered; and of course many opportunities arose during the course of the day for them to reconnect—to eat lunch together, or exercise together in Physical Education, or visit in the hallways between classes.

In one of last night’s dreams, Kathy was sitting at a table when I walked past. She stood, hugged me, kissed me on the mouth, smiled and said something friendly that I can no longer remember, and then sat again. I can assure you that in all our years of school together, she never did such a thing to me—not even once.

In the later dream, she and I both knew that it was Tuesday and that the lunch that was to be served on Tuesday was particularly repulsive. I knew of a couple of good restaurants across the street from where we were cleaning, and I wanted to invite her to join me for lunch. To the end of the dream, though, I failed to work up the courage to approach her with my invitation.

This morning, with Kathy still at the edges of my memory, I typed into Google® her name and our hometown. I learned that she had graduated college, gotten married, worked as a nurse, and had two sons. She was respected and well-liked by her coworkers and the patients she served. However, Kathy died almost one year ago. The comments that followed her obituary glowed with praise for her life of service and her kind and helpful personality.

I cannot guess what brought Kathy’s image into my dreams last night. Of all my classmates from those early days of school, she is scarcely the most memorable. We never became friends, as we truly had few common interests. Of all the dreams in all the unfamiliar bedrooms in all my travels over the years, why did she have to come into mine last night? J.