Not everything is a miracle

On a pair of blogs, both written by faithful Christians, I have recently seen the following quote from Albert Einstein: “Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” At first glance it appears that Dr. Einstein was affirming the existence of miracles, but I am afraid that was not the case. That quote does not mean what some Christians think it means.

Consider the source: Einstein was a scientist who studied the principles of the universe—physics—and discovered new aspects of physics that had not been seen before. Religiously, Einstein wavered between Deism and atheism. Sometimes he spoke of the universe as God’s creation and described science as learning God’s rules for creation. But in other cases he stated that he used God’s name as a shorthand label for the order and structure in the universe without considering God to be a personal or accessible Being in the Christian sense of the term.

“Either everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle.” Einstein probably believed that nothing is a miracle. Everything happens according to natural law, and the more we study the universe and learn its laws, the fewer things will surprise us. If everything is a miracle, then the word “miracle” has lost its meaning. Deists and atheists disagree about whether there is a god, but they agree that no god interferes with the universe and causes events that are against the natural laws of the universe.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” He established the natural laws that scientists like Einstein study to learn, but he did not bind himself by those laws. God’s creation is full of marvels and wonders. We should be astounded every day by the glorious things God has made. But to call created things miracles robs the word “miracle” of its meaning. We must reserve that word for the special actions of God that show him acting within his creation.

We are wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). Every human baby born is a marvel and a wonder. But when ninety-year-old Sarah conceives and gives birth to Isaac, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle. When Mary, a virgin, conceives and gives birth to Jesus, that is more than a marvel and a wonder; it is a miracle.

God sends rain to water the earth, making it grow and flourish. Some of that rain lands in vineyards, where the grape vines soak up the water through their roots along with nutrients from the soil. The vines produce leaves which gather energy from the sun and change carbon dioxide into oxygen to give energy to the vines. That is a wonder. The vines then develop bunches of grapes, which swell and ripen in the sun and the rain. That is a wonder. The grapes can be picked and eaten, or they can be cooked into jelly, or they can be crushed and fermented to produce wine. That is a wonder. But when Jesus calls for six pots to be filled with water and then instantly transforms it into wine, that is a miracle. God is at work in his creation, doing suddenly what his creation requires time to accomplish.

When grain is sown and sprouts, that is a wonder. When it grows in a field until it produces a crop, many times the number of grains that were planted, that is a wonder. But when Jesus takes five loaves of bread and feeds a crowd of thousands, with basketfuls of leftovers remaining after they had eaten their fill, that is a miracle. Once again, we see the Creator at work, going beyond the laws of his creation.

Some people claim that primitive and unscientific people wrote about miracles. They go on to say that we would see the same things today and understand them scientifically; we would not call them miracles. That is far from true. The writers of the Bible described the miracles they saw because they knew those events were special. They knew that ninety-year-old women do not conceive and give birth. Nor do virgins. Water does not instantly transform into wine, nor does a loaf of bread multiply in one day to feed a thousand people. Dead people do not return to life. These miracles were signature events, indications that the Lord of the universe was present, doing good things to help the people he loves.

Miracles show us that Jesus is the Son of God, though whom and for whom all things were created. They show his compassion, his desire to help his people. They show him at work fixing the things that sin and evil have broken in his creation. They foretell what he will do on the Day of the Lord, when all the dead are raised, when every eye will see him, and when the entire planet will be transformed. That new creation will be the ultimate miracle, after which no further miracles will ever be needed. J.

Dealing kindly with toxic personalities

He was gloomy and gruff, but no one ever told him to “cheer up.” He was pessimistic about everything and had a negative outlook on life, but no one ever told him to change his way of thinking. He spent his days in an emotional cloud of depression and despair, but his friends were kind and supportive, never treating him as a toxic person, never complaining that he drained all the life out of their party.

His name was Eeyore. He lived in the Hundred Acre Wood, a neighbor to Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, Owl, Tigger, Kanga and Roo, and—of course—Christopher Robin. Each of them had his or her own quirks, a unique personality that had failings as well as higher qualities. In fact, you can search the Internet and find pages that diagnose each character in the stories with a different psychological disorder. A. A. Milne was not writing a textbook about disorders, though; Milne was experimenting with various personality types to show how they function within a caring and compassionate community.

In a society that preaches tolerance for a number of aberrations, it seems that some personality types are still less acceptable than others. Introverts are expected to act like extraverts. People battling anxiety and depression are told that “its all in your head,” and they are expected to act as if everything is fine. They are told to have more faith in God, as if faithful believers (including Job and Elijah) were never depressed. They are told that God’s blessings bring joy and peace, that if they are lacking the feelings of joy and peace there is something wrong in their relationship with God. (That’s exactly what Job’s friends said to him, but God said they were wrong.) They are told to take it to the Lord in prayer, with the suggestion that if that does not lift their gloomy cloud, there must be something wrong with their prayers.

This month I re-read the books Milne wrote about the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood. I found it interesting to observe how his friends treated Eeyore. When he was moping because his tail was missing, Winnie the Pooh took it upon himself to hunt until he found Eeyore’s tail. When Eeyore was grumpy because it was his birthday and no one had noticed, Pooh and Piglet found gifts to celebrate the occasion. Even though the gifts fell short of their intentions—Pooh emptied the honey pot on his way to Eeyore’s house, and Piglet popped the balloon—still, the gifts meant a great deal to Eeyore.

The closest anyone approached trying to correct Eeyore’s attitude was the time that Eeyore complained that he had few visitors, and Owl pointed out that Eeyore could be a visitor in other people’s houses rather than waiting at home for a visitor to arrive. That’s helpful advice and rather mild criticism for a character that would be described in many families, workplaces, and gatherings as a toxic personality, always complaining, never happy, and taxing the happiness of others.

Pooh may have been a Bear of Very Little Brain, but the size of his heart more than compensated for his lack of a brain. Somehow he knew how to treat Eeyore and the rest of his neighbors—never with complaining or criticism, but always with acceptance, helpfulness, and good cheer. Good friends are a blessing from the Lord. Pooh sensed without thinking it through that the best way to have friends was to be a friend, even to negative and gloomy neighbors. J.

Comic geniuses

Tim Conway died this week; he was eighty-five years old. Tim performed on many occasions over the years, but he is best-remembered and best-loved for his comic antics on the Carol Burnett show. Along with Carol and Harvey Korman and Vicki Lawrence, Tim Conway would play parts in comedy sketches. Each episode of Carol’s show was taped twice, on consecutive nights, and then the producers would edit the best performances of each night into one broadcast show. After having followed the script on the first night, Tim Conway would often improvise on the second night; his unexpected antics frequently forced his acting partners to burst into laughter on stage. The producers generally chose to broadcast the second-night version, making Tim Conway famous for his ability to take his fellow performers by surprise with his comic wit.

Andy Kaufman died thirty-five years ago today; he was thirty-five years old. Andy may have been best-known for playing Latka on Taxi, but he was best-loved for the material he created on his own. Latka was an adaptation of one of Andy’s inventions, Foreign Man, who would attempt stand-up comedy and fail miserably. He would finally resort to celebrity imitations, from which he would suddenly emerge with an Elvis Presley imitation, one so brilliant that even Presley admired his work. Andy appeared on Saturday Night Live more than a dozen times, including its very first episode. He also had two television specials that are still available—one made-for-TV special and one live performance at Carnegie Hall. Many of his other performances can be found by searching the Internet.

Tim Conway and Andy Kaufman never performed together, so far as I know. Their styles would not have meshed, given Conway’s slapstick and improvisation skills and Kaufman’s performance art and characterization skills. Both comics flourished in the same format, that of the variety show. This kind of television peaked in the 1970s, with some weekly shows like Carol Burnett’s and some seasonal shows like the Bob Hope Christmas Special. Variety shows focused on one or two famous performers, a company of stock performers, and special guests, usually a mixture of musical performers, comedians, and other celebrities (serious actors, sports figures, and politicians, for example). Carol Burnett’s show was one of the best of the genre. Countless bits of hilarity still come to mind when her show is mentioned, but the musical ability of Carol’s team and their guests also rises above much of what was done for entertainment at that time.

In 1976, Dick Van Dyke assembled a short-running variety show; Andy Kaufman appeared on more than half the episodes that were shown. Van Dyke and Company was, in a sense, a parody of variety shows. Van Dyke feuded with the producers of the show, disdaining their suggestions or openly regretting their refusal to let him do what he pleased. He responded to letter-writers who claimed that his musical guests were merely a means to gain viewers and had no relationship with Van Dyke; following his denial of the charge, Dick Van Dyke immediately mangled the name of his next musical guest. When Andy Kaufman appeared on the show, he was generally Foreign Man, interrupting Van Dyke to the elder comedian’s apparent annoyance. Van Dyke actually thought Andy was brilliant and was delighted to have him on the show. Andy got to perform with other celebrities, including Carl Reiner and John Denver. The recording of his transformation into Elvis on Van Dyke and Company is special because the audience is not prepared for the routine, as they are in other recordings of that act.

Another comic genius, Bob Einstein, worked on Van Dyke and Company. Einstein died in January of this year; he was seventy-six years old. Einstein was a writer and producer of the show; he also appeared in several episodes. In one episode, Einstein walks onto the stage during the closing monologue after Dick Van Dyke has fumbled a line; like a baseball manager, Einstein calls for a relief comedian (who turns out to be Tommy Smothers). Einstein also introduced his Super Dave character on Van Dyke and Company; as Super Dave he would later appear on many television talk shows, including those of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.

In the 1970s, many comedians drew laughter from their audiences by shocking them with vulgar language and taboo topics. That trend has continued to the present. Tim Conway, Andy Kaufman, and Bob Einstein were able to amuse and entertain without descending to the depths of human depravity. Their humor surprised people, but the surprise was generally one of delight, not one of repugnance. It’s a good thing that so much of their material was recorded and saved, so we can remind ourselves and show others how genuine comedy looks and sounds. J.

The beauty of diverse styles of Christian worship

This spring I’ve been giving a series of lectures on World Religions. A week ago, I spoke about Christianity. This morning before class a woman took me aside to share her experiences within the Christian faith. She had been Lutheran, but a few years ago she switched to an Anglican congregation, which she says is very similar. (I agree.) She also attends a non-denominational church once a month with a friend (and she goes to that congregation’s weekly Bible class as well). She commented that she had attended the Easter Saturday service at the non-denominational church, but it hadn’t felt right. She then began to list for me the things missing from the service, such as a reading from one of the Gospels, and the Lord’s Prayer. But, she said, the preacher’s homily was good and quoted a lot of Bible verses.

The main thing for her, she said, was looking around and seeing lots of young adults at the non-denominational service. She figured that if the church was drawing them in and they were learning about Jesus, she wasn’t going to complain about the music (unfamiliar to her) or the parts of the service that were missing. I agreed with her that it’s good that Christian worship is diverse, that there are different ways of worshiping that appeal to different people. (I think that was the point that she was making, reflecting my discussion last week about enormous diversity within Christian thought and practice.) But I also mentioned that not all young people are drawn to the sort of worship offered in the non-denominational churches. Some young people enjoy the historic liturgy. They crave the traditions that grew in the Church over the centuries, the forms of worship that have united rather than dividing the saints of the Church across lines of age and economic status and culture. When those traditions are followed without being explained, they can be dry and boring, and therefore distracting. Where the meaning of the traditions is taught and shared, many Christians find great meaning and joy in the divine service as it has been followed for many generations.

Twenty years ago I might have said more to this woman about the richness of Christian traditional liturgy. In this case, I was quick to say that diversity is good, that the Church as a whole is blessed when Christians in a city can choose among different forms of worship, whether traditional, contemporary, or blended. I sincerely hope that the traditional liturgy never disappears; but I am glad that Christians who do not find liturgy meaningful can worship in a style that suits their personality and draws them closer to the Lord.

When I was in school, we students often discussed the different levels of formality in worship styles. One of my friends referred to those levels as “very formal, somewhat more casual, and massive casualty.” In a formal setting, worshipers sit on pews; in a somewhat more casual setting, they sit on folding chairs; and in massive casualty they sit in bean bag chairs. In a formal setting, the pastor wears a long white robe (called an alb) or perhaps a long black robe under a shorter white robe (called, respectively, a cassock and a surplice); in a somewhat more casual setting, the pastor wears a business suit; and in massive casualty the pastor wears a Hawaiian shirt. In a formal setting, the singing of the congregation is accompanied by a pipe organ; in a more casual setting, the singing is accompanied by a small rock band; in massive casualty, singing is accompanied by either a mariachi band or an accordion—and, of course, in some congregations the singing is accompanied by no instruments at all.

So long as the message of Jesus is taught and his forgiveness is shared, the style of worship is less important than the content of the message in the preaching, the singing, and the other elements of the service. New styles that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; new styles that distract people from his message are bad. Traditions that help draw attention to Christ’s message are good; traditions that distract people from his message are bad. The Church exists for Christ, to be both his Body and his Bride. Distractions of any kind should give way to those things that serve his purpose. And, in different gatherings of Christians, those things that serve is purpose may be different indeed. J.

Turning into my parents

An insurance company advertises that they can save you money, but they can’t keep you from turning into your parents. I guess all of us become more like our parents as we age, no matter how often we told ourselves as children that we would never say or do certain things that our parents said and did.

The other day I was preparing to mow the lawn and the mail carrier said, “Looks like someone is getting ready to have some fun.” I laughed and told her, “No, but it has to be done.” Instantly I remember how many times my mother and my father said the same thing about lawn and garden work or about housework: “It has to be done.” I felt at times that they were committing themselves and their children to a lot of chores that really didn’t have to be done. Pulling weeds was never my favorite summertime activity. But they justified their own efforts—and the efforts they demanded of their children—with that simple slogan, “It has to be done.”

Both my parents grew up during the Great Depression. There were probably a lot of things that “had to be done” in those days, from growing their own vegetables to taking small jobs to earn a few coins to help support the family. Then they had the wartime years, where certain things “had to be done,” such as going without food to help feed the soldiers and collecting scrap metal and rubber for recycling as part of the war effort. Many of their peers settled into more comfortable lives in the Fifties and Sixties; but for my parents, life remained full of chores and duties that had to be done.

I wrote an essay in college about my parents’ “work ethic,” saying that I hoped I would not be as duty-driven as an adult. Some years I have succeeded in living up to my college dream, treating the things I do at my job as things I get to do, not things I have to do. At home I try to reduce the work that has to be done—as I’ve written before, one hour of lawn work a week is enough, in my opinion. My children have had chores, but they were meant to teach them life skills, not as something that “had to be done.”

To my surprise, that slogan of my parents came out of my mouth as naturally as if I invented it myself. “It has to be done.” The grass has to be mowed. The city will fine me if my lawn exceeds a certain height, and given all the rain we’ve had lately and all the rain in the forecast, there was only a window of a day or two open to get the grass cut.

What things do you say or do that you learned from your parents? J.

Saint Rodney

I met Rodney at a time that I needed the very inspiration he offered.

I had been accepted into graduate school during my last year of college. On a path towards a career of working in the church, I had majored in religious studies while in college. Between college and graduate school, I took a summer job at a Christian publishing company.

The transition from college to graduate school was not easy for me. In college I had enjoyed the freedom to take any position and support it with evidence; in graduate school, I was expected to agree with the professors on most positions. Political turmoil within the denomination increased tension on campus: students joked that the salt shakers in the cafeteria contained microphones to transmit our conversations to the office of the school’s president, while the pepper shakers contained microphones to transmit our conversations to the office of the denomination’s president. Uncomfortable with the campus environment, I decided that winter to take the spring and summer off and to use that time to decide whether to return in the fall.

Those months away from school I shared an apartment with a friend, working an evening job in fast food and a daytime job at the Christian publishing company where I had worked the previous summer. Meanwhile, Rodney had been hired at the publishing company. He was of Japanese-Hawaiian origin and was a large man who had been a sumo wrestler and had played on the offensive line for the University of Hawaii’s football team. He was not yet a Christian during his college years, and he had abused alcohol and drugs at that time, causing chronic health problems that would continue to plague him later in life.

Rodney became a Christian and then became a pastor in Hawaii. Here is the kind of pastor Rodney was: he had given his name and telephone number to the downtown bartenders so that, if they had a customer who was despondent and needed help, the bartenders could call Pastor Rodney and he would drive to the bar and provide Christian counseling. The spring we met, Rodney was taking graduate classes at a Christian college and also receiving regular medical treatment for the failure of his kidneys.

Our boss called Rodney his dreamer. Every week Rodney had a new plan for his life, a new thought about how he could be involved in Christian outreach, bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who were lost. He was waiting for a kidney transplant, but he had already declined offers of live donors, preferring to trust the Lord and medical treatments to carry him until a suitable kidney was available. Rodney spoke with wonder about the form of dialysis he was receiving, one that used the abdominal cavity to provide the filtering he needed for his blood. He spoke of it as a God-given back-up kidney hidden in the human body.

Rodney died while receiving treatment at the hospital on May 6.

His infectious enthusiasm for serving the Lord and his Church contributed to my decision to return to school that fall and muddle through the program until I received my degree and certification. Every year I remember Saint Rodney on May 6, and I thank God for the part Rodney had in my professional development. J.

Le Morte de Beau

Bo

The Salvageable family lost a faithful companion this week.

Bo joined us eleven years ago when one of my coworkers needed to find a new home for her cat because of her daughter’s allergies. The cat was about five years old at the time. They had obtained him from an animal shelter which had already named him Bo; my family wasn’t excited about the name, but the cat was already used to it. To give him a little more dignity, we often spelled it Beau.

When he joined the family, he wasn’t interested in curling up on a lap. He preferred to be pet while standing on or near a lap. As he grew older, he became more of a lap cat. I found that he liked to be cuddled, held upside down like a human baby while I stroked his head and face. It seemed to me that he was reliving kittenhood, remembering being washed by his mother, so sometimes while cuddling him I would say to him, in my best James Earl Jones voice, “Bo, I am your mother.”

Bo also enjoyed supervising food preparation in the kitchen. He had a favorite stool from which he could supervise the chopping of vegetables and other states in putting together a meal. He loved the smell of cooking meat. He also associated the sound of the can opener with juice drained from canned tuna, which he was allowed to drink from a bowl. Even if he was napping, the noise of the can opener would rouse him and call him to the kitchen. The cook would usually let Bo smell the lid of the can if its contents were not tuna, just to let him know he was not missing anything good.

Bo sometimes would get excited and energetic and would tear around the house. He especially loved high places—the tops of bookshelves, the piano, the china cabinet, and the grandfather clock. He would even curl up and sleep in some of those places.

He liked being part of a large family. Some of his favorite moments involved sitting in the living room while several people carried on a conversation. When only one or two people were in the house, he would sometimes wander from room to room, crying plaintively. He came to like the sound of his own voice; he identified the areas in the house with the best echoes and lectured loudly in those places.

October 2012 brought the Mayan apocalypse to the Salvageable family. Cars were breaking down right and left, the computer crashed, followed shortly by the printer, a favorite co-worker left for a different job, and Bo added to the turmoil early in November. When my daughters were leaving early in the morning for a dance competition, Bo managed to slip outside. I didn’t miss him until suppertime, when I tore apart the house looking for him and also searched outside. When the rest of the family returned that night, the search was repeated, but with no success. We went to bed tearfully. The next morning he was found under the backyard deck of a neighbor’s house. He seemed no worse for the experience, and we were glad and relieved to have him back.

Bo had chronic respiratory problems, probably allergies. We sometimes wondered if he was allergic to himself. While he was capable of a genuine purr, more often he showed his contentment through heavy breathing. In November 2017 Bo had a sudden loss of balance which likely was due to a stroke. He was unable to walk for a couple of days, then gradually regained his equilibrium, but he was never the same after that. He would often tilt his head when looking at people, which I suspect was compensation for double vision. The last eighteen months have been, for the family, a bonus time with Bo, because we realize that we could have lost him when he had that stroke.

This spring his health began to deteriorate. His breathing troubles increased, and he began to lose weight. The veterinarian gave him antibiotics and steroid shots, and we spent money on high-calorie cat foods, as well as supplementing his diet with meat from our table. He still ate, but his body apparently lost the ability to nourish itself from food. Day by day his strength diminished. We did our best to make him comfortable. Like an old soldier, Bo faded away, until he breathed his last Thursday morning.

The Bible is unclear about whether we will be reunited with our pets. There will be animals in the new creation: “The wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.” The only mention of the soul of animals is found in Ecclesiastes, where Solomon says, “Who knows?” Previous generations of Christian teachers insisted that animals had no souls, and therefore had no afterlife. More recent teachers have said, “You will be happy in heaven; so if you need your pets to be happy, they will be there.” I am inclined to believe that animals who have had a close relationship with believers have gained enough soul from that relationship to be reunited in the new creation. We will find out when we get there. Maybe not, but possibly, Bo is waiting for that reunion as he used to wait for his people to come home. J.

cat at door