The grim prophecy of Edmund Burke

It can be both thrilling and disconcerting when a thinker from an earlier time speaks to current issues in his (or her) day, and we find his (or her) words equally relevant for the problems we face today.

Edmund Burke was a member of the British Parliament in the second half of the eighteenth century (the 1700s). During his political career, he addressed many of the international situations that affected the British Empire, most of which involved the Empire directly. Burke did not want to see the thirteen colonies in North America leave the Empire, but he also did not want to go to war against those colonies; he wanted to negotiate a settlement that would address their complaints and preserve their place in the Empire. Burke opposed slavery, but he suggested a gradual reduction of slavery in place of sudden and potentially divisive and violent abolition. He sought greater rights for Irish citizens of the British Empire, and he sought to improve conditions in southern Asia (which is to say, India) and punishment for British officials who violated the human rights of Asians in the Empire.

Burke feared the excesses he saw in the French Revolution. A few British leaders were delighted to see France struggle, figuring that anything bad for France was good for Britain. Others favored the slogans of liberty and equality expressed in the French Revolution and hoped to see similar changes pursued in Britain. Burke despised the attack upon authority and tradition that he witnessed in France. He spoke against the Jacobins, the political group in France most responsible for the violent phase of the Revolution which has become known as the Reign of Terror. In 1795, Burke spoke about the Jacobins, their goals and their strategy, in a way that seems eerily relevant to political strife in the United States today. Burke wrote:

 “What is Jacobinism? It is an attempt (hitherto but too successful) to eradicate prejudice out of the minds of men, for the purpose of putting all power and authority into the hands of the persons capable of occasionally enlightening the minds of the people. For this purpose the Jacobins have resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion. To obtain an army for this purpose, they everywhere engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich. This I take to be a fair description of the principles and leading maxims of the enlightened of our day who are commonly called Jacobins.”

At first glance, eradicating prejudice out of the minds of men (and women and children) seems a good thing. We hold that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We quickly renounce prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race, culture, and other human differences. But what happens when the battle against prejudice is expanded to include tolerance of all human differences, even those differences that strike at the core of being human? What happens when the government is given power to censure and punish any statement or belief that the government defines as intolerant, as “hate speech”? Does this battle against prejudice provide greater freedom and liberty, or does it make all people slaves of the government and its managers?

Are we truly ready to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world—to strike down religious liberty in the name of tolerance, and to label as “science” any faddish procedure that the government favors today? Do we want a small group of elite educators, entertainers, and opinion-generators to be the guardians of truth, the authorities that undermine and displace traditional leadership in the family, the community, and the religious gatherings of the people?

And what do we say in response to those who “engage the poor by holding out to them as a bribe the spoils of the rich”? Are we truly inclined to punish the wealthy for their success, to reward the lazy for their indolence, and to invite the government to gather all national wealth and redistribute that wealth as the government chooses? Granted, the world is not fair. Some people gather wealth without deserving it; many people are poor who deserve more than they have received. Must we abandon our hope that generosity and kindness will reduce the injustice, that hard work will be rewarded, and that compassion and respect for all people can be taught as common virtues? Must we trust a few self-proclaimed experts to take into their hands our wealth, our freedom, and our self-respect, allowing them to distribute these goods as they deem appropriate and right?

By asking these questions, I may well be risking my present job and potential future employment. At the moment, I do not care. Each generation, it seems, must struggle to preserve liberty and justice, and our time has come. If we remain silent, if we allow tyranny and oppression to go unchallenged because the tyrants claim to be tolerant and beneficent, then we cast away all that our forefathers struggled to establish in this land. We remain the land of the free only so long as we also are the home of the brave. J.

Growing up in the Seventies

Some readers might wonder whether my formative years, spent in the Chicago suburbs, resembled the teen world depicted in movies written and directed by John Hughes. My best answer to that question is, “Somewhat.” My family and the families of my classmates were not, for the most part, as affluent as the families represented in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Home Alone (or, for that matter, in Risky Business, another teen-centered movie set in the Chicago area). Probably the 1980s movie that comes closest to depicting my memories of high school is Lucas, also not a John Hughes movie. But Hughes did capture some of the themes and nuances of adolescence in the Chicago suburbs during that era. The stereotypes depicted in Breakfast Club match the groups I knew in junior and senior high school.

I just pulled out my Middle School and High School yearbooks to confirm my memories of those years. Nearly every boy in my class was involved either in athletics (such as basketball) or in more academic extracurricular activities (such as the photography club). My better friends were in the latter group. A larger range of opportunities in high school allowed more overlap, but more prestige belonged to the athletes and cheerleaders than to the future chemists, physicians, or business leaders in the student body. The Swing Choir was also a prestigious group, and it was notable to be involved in the spring musical. (My four years, the high school put on “My Fair Lady,” “Music Man,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and, “Hello, Dolly!” I played in the orchestra for “Music Man” and “Fiddler,” then auditioned for an acting role in “Dolly” and won the part of Horace Vandergelder.) Looking at the accomplishments listed for each graduating senior, some were active in many groups, others did only a few things, and some went through four years of high school without taking part in any activity outside of classes.

One feature of high school life missing from the John Hughes movies is religion. Most of the students I knew in middle school and high school were active in a church, generally the same church their parents attended. Some families were Catholic; many went to the Bible Church or other nondenominational congregations. Being near Wheaton with its Christian college and its Christian publishing companies, the students in my community had a higher than average Bible literacy and participation in faith-based groups.

But my other memories of those years involve bullying. Around fifth grade, other students began noticing that I was “different.” Without much racial or cultural diversity in our neighborhood, small things were enough to mark someone as “different.” I was called “the brain” and other less complimentary terms, including some words whose meaning may not have been known to the students who used them as insults. I was the first member of the class to wear glasses. I was the last to learn how to ride a bicycle, always being mildly awkward. When assaulted, I did not fight back. For about five years, I found myself at the receiving end of mild abuse—nothing horribly violent or humiliating, but abuse all the same.

One of my middle school teachers took me aside one day and advised me to fight back. He believed that one solid punch in the nose might set the bullies straight and end my troubles. I didn’t have the confidence to follow his advice. When I was a high school freshman, a Physical Education (P.E.) teacher deliberately put me in a difficult position. We were playing dodgeball in PE, the bane of all tortured, non-athletic students. He had a variant of the game that required a student to guard an orange traffic cone while the rest of the class tried to knock the cone over with the rubber balls. Because I could not wear my glasses during PE, certainly not in dodgeball, I could not see the balls coming my direction to catch them (which would have disqualified the thrower of the caught ball from the contest). But, blinded though I was, I doggedly guarded the cone and kept it from being hit. Needless to say, I was thoroughly pelted during the moments the game continued—probably a much shorter time than it seemed. As the PE teacher may have respected, I did not cry or lose my composure or complain in any way. My endurance, perhaps, helped to win respect for me from at least some of the more athletic types that had felt only disdain for me until that day.

I have good memories from high school. I learned many important and helpful things in the classroom. I took part in the marching band, the orchestra, the musicals, the district math contest, the student newspaper, and the Honors Society. I made friends, some of whom are still valuable to my life today. At the same time, I also learned that many people will dislike me, just because I am “different.” I believed my mother’s advice, that “if you show people that their pestering bothers you, they will keep on pestering.” (Therefore, I did not learn how to confront a bully.) I learned to dig in, to hold my ground, to keep on doing the right thing, and not to care if that makes life tough for a while. I learned that bad times end and that better things can be expected down the road. I learned to live. J.

Math and science and other stuff

Combined with a head start in reading, I also have a mind that is nimble with numbers. I can remember, from an early age, mentally playing with the numbers on the hymnal board, finding mathematical relationships among them. As a result, in school, I was accelerated in math as well as in reading.

Our school had about ninety children in each grade; the ninety were divided into three classrooms. We were sorted by academic competence, and every student knew which group was smart, which was dumb, and which was in the middle. In fourth grade they resorted us for math class. I remember one girl being teased because she was in the smart class for everything else, but for math she was in the dumb class. I do not think the school district meant for us to be aware of the difference, let alone judgmental about it, but children will be children.

I was one of the few who was promoted a year in math (but not in other classes). As a fourth-grader, I went to the fifth grade class for math. In fifth grade I was with the sixth-graders, then in sixth grade with the seventh-graders, and in seventh-grade I was with the eighth graders. No one had a plan about what to do with me next, so I repeated eighth grade math in the eighth grade. If someone at school or at home had troubled to get a high school book and guide me through it, I might have taken more interest in math or science as a career, but no one bothered to think that far outside the box.

On the other hand, my parents surrounded me with scientific toys. I had a telescope and a microscope, a chemistry kit, and a kit of electronic projects from Radio Shack. I enjoyed those toys, and I’m sure they helped me to well in school, but math and science remained fun hobbies. I got easy As in those subjects all through school, but I never considered career opportunities in those fields.

I followed the space program on TV, watched the Apollo missions to the moon, and dreamed of being an astronaut. I dissected frogs in seventh grade and learned the parts of the body, even the Latin names for all the bones. I took to algebra, to trigonometry, and to symbolic logic for geometric proofs like a duck to water. My senior year of high school, I took calculus, which was as far as the high school math program could take us. By the end of the year, my friend Pete and I were go-to resources, along with the teacher, to help the rest of the class understand the calculus lessons. (Pete was high school valedictorian; he is now a family physician in the Chicago area.) Some high school teachers, and some other adults I knew, were disappointed that I was not pursuing further education and a career in science or mathematics.  

When I was in the fourth grade, a student teacher working on a paper for her school took me and a few other students from assorted grades out of class for testing that went beyond the standardized tests all students took. I was never told results of those tests. But, after I graduated college, I once took the privilege of visiting the school and seeing my “permanent file.” I learned that, in the earliest grades, my standardized test scores were only slightly above average. I scored well on the individualized tests conducted by this student teacher. Afterward, my test scores increased each year. In high school, I scored As in every class except some Physical Education classes and one typing class. (I graduated seventh in my class.) In college I managed straight As and was at the top of my class. On the SAT and ACT and later on the GRE, I landed in the highest percentile. But skill at test-taking does not translate to skill in all areas. I am capable of only the most basic household and car repair skills—I can change a light bulb or even replace a switch or electrical outlet; I can change a tire or a car battery. Beyond those basic tasks, I rely on professionals. I’ve done a smattering of learning in other languages, but I’ve never become fluent in a second language, and geniuses who can sense and describe nuances in the grammar of vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew and Greek or in more recent Latin and German texts blow me out of the water. I can read music and play several instruments but am proficient at none of them. It took me many years to begin to appreciate the complexity of classical music, let alone modern jazz. No one does all things well. At best, we do well in the things that matter most to us and to those who rely upon us. J.

It has always been about books

My mother used to say that she taught me to read as a method of self-defense so she would be able to get things done around the house while I was awake. Apparently, I would toddle after her, carrying a book, demanding that she stop what she was doing and read to me. Books and reading, then, have been part of my life since my very earliest years, and that fact is unlikely to change any time in the foreseeable future.

Back in my days, children were sent to school to learn how to read and write and do math. Parents did not attempt early childhood education at home. Kindergarten was optional in those days, and other forms of preschool did not yet exist. My parents chose to send me to kindergarten, not because I needed an early education or because they wanted a few hours a week of child care, but because they thought I needed to be around other children. At a parent-teacher conference that year, the kindergarten teacher warned my mother that I might have some kind of disability. I spent more time looking at each page of each book than most children my age. My mother laughed and told the teacher that I was reading the words on the page. The teacher did not believe her until she took me aside and had me read to her. Later, she had me read to the entire class. I remember that event: the book was about a boy who bought a goldfish but fed it too much, causing it quickly to grow to an enormous size. I cannot recall any reaction from my peers about the fact that I could read to them, but I do remember reading that book to them.

This is, perhaps, one of the few significant differences between the Baby Boomer Generation and Generation X. Early childhood education began to be stressed after the Boomers had left early childhood, just as the Xers were reaching that milestone. Sesame Street went on the air in November 1969. Boomers had children’s TV: first we had Howdy Doody, and after him came Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers. But none of those shows spoke to us about letters and numbers and colors. They were there to entertain us. They imparted some information and social values in the process. But they did not offer communication skills or arithmetic: schools were established to provide that kind of training.

In first grade, the teacher stressed the alphabet. In second grade, each student was evaluated and placed into a curriculum of twenty volumes, beginning with the basics and ending with fluent reading. I remember that I was started in volume twelve. I also remember that volume nineteen consisted of myths from the Greeks and Romans (using the Roman names of Jupiter and Mercury and the rest), and volume twenty was a story that borrowed from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I no longer remember how the group of children entered the magic world of that story, but I do recall that petrification was one of the dangers in that world; I also remember a running theme centered on the riddle, “When is a door not a door? When it is ajar.”

My head start in reading was formative for my academic career. Being an early reader, I developed skills as a fast reader with a high level of comprehension. I heard, as a young adult, about classes in speed reading, but I never felt the need to increase my reading rate. One of the skills taught in those classes (I understand) is the ability to scan a line of text without focusing upon every word. I did not know whether I read that way until an event several years ago. I was reading in the living room; one of my children was doing schoolwork on the computer across the room. I looked up at the child and watched her work long enough that the afterimage of the computer screen was temporarily burned onto my retina. Then, returning to my reading, I observed that the afterimage was jumping across the page, pausing for an instant near the beginning and the ending of each line, not looking at each word. Somewhere in my early career as a reader, I taught myself how to speed read without any instruction or effort to gain that skill.

Many benefits derive from speed reading. A few benefits are lost. I doubt that I appreciate poetry as thoroughly as slower readers who savor each word and each expression in the poem. I enjoy poetry, but I know that other people gain more from reading poems than I gain. The same attitude transfers to other art appreciation. I cannot watch a movie or hear a symphony faster than anyone else, but in an art gallery I spend far less time looking at individual pieces than most people do. Even appreciating nature, I do not stand and absorb the view in the way most people do. I see the same things, I notice details, I rejoice in the beauty that surrounds us; but I do so quickly, and I am ready to move on while other people are still looking.

People are different. Our differences do not make us better or worse than other people. Together, we are the harmony, the palette of colors, the blend of flavors that enrich all our lives. Without our differences, we would all be the same, and what a boring world would result from that sameness! J.

Not always greener

An old expression claims that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” That expression describes discontent and envy. Whatever situation we experience, we always think that other people have it better. We accuse our parents of loving our brother or sister more than they loved us. We think that our jobs are the least rewarding and the hardest—that people with other jobs receive more recognition and higher salaries, even though they do less work. We see people succeed at things for which we struggle—not merely worldly things, but virtues like patience and humility and perseverance. We think that they must be happy, because, in addition to the pluses we see in their lives, we attribute to them our pluses, and so we elevate them above ourselves. We do not consider the possibility that we succeed where they struggle, that they might envy our successes as much as we envy theirs.

Like the expression, “A watched pot never boils,” the expression about the greener grass should not be taken literally. In fact, I’m pleased to report that my grass is just as green as the grass the neighbors have been tending.

July and August have been hot and dry in our part of the country. Most of the people living around me have been watering their lawns on a daily basis. They have been spending time and labor and money to keep their grass green. As we went without rain, the grass in my lawn went dormant. Instead of remaining green, it faded to a soft tan, much like its winter color.

But we had some cooler rainy days this past week, and my lawn has revived. My grass might not be as thick as the neighbor’s grass, but that is not due only to watering. I also have not fertilized my lawn or treated it with weed-killers. Frankly, I love the clover and violets and even the dandelions that coexist with the grass in my lawn. In the aftermath of the recent rain, though, my grass is as green as their grass. For that, I am both humbly and smugly glad.

If I could serve my Lord as faithfully and diligently as my neighbors serve their lawns, no one could doubt the depth and sincerely of my Christian faith. Instead, by refusing to water my lawn on a daily basis, I have needed to mow only once every three to four weeks instead of every week. My neglect repaid me with even more time for other tasks, while my neighbors remained enslaved to their lawns. We are promised more rain the beginning of next week. So I will have more opportunity to study God’s Word, to consider how best to share that Word, and to let that Word shape my life—while my neighbors wait for a break in the rain so they can get out there and mow again.

My grass is as green as their grass. They may have thought that I envied their lawns, but instead they may be the ones turning green with envy as they see my grass survive and even thrive under the blessing of my benevolent neglect. J.

Childhood memories

I was born in a house my father built. This is not to say that my father drew up the architectural plans for the house, that he dug the basement or poured the cement for the foundations of the house. Nor did he raise the walls, shingle the roof, or install the plumbing and electrical work. My parents paid professional workers to do all these tasks; they oversaw the work and even suggested two or three small refinements to the original plan. But it was their house from the beginning; no other family had ever lived there before, and no other family has lived there since.

The land was a gift from my mother’s parents. In 1939 they purchased a farmhouse and three acres of land from the original farm. Their plan at the time was that their son and their daughter would each be given a quarter of the property to build a home. This plan was fulfilled; so my nearest neighbors growing up were my grandparents next door and my uncle and aunt and cousins behind us. For legal purposes, my parents were required to pay some money to my grandparents to acquire the land. My father gave my grandfather a ten dollar bill the day the papers were signed to transfer the property; at the end of the ceremony, my grandfather secretly returned the cash to my father, telling him, “You need this more than I do.”

Not only did my father really build the house; I was not really born in the house. I was born eleven miles away, in the maternity ward of a hospital. The family doctor my parents chose practiced in that hospital, not in the hospital located in their hometown, which was much closer to their house. My birth certificate lists my legal birthplace as one town, but my genuine hometown has always been the house where my parents lived when I was born, the town where I grew up and went to school, the town where I was baptized and confirmed, where I attended church with my parents, where I played outdoors with the neighborhood children or alone, where I learned many of the things that I know and remember today.

Winfield had 567 residents in 1940, the year after my grandparents moved there. I had a railroad station, a tavern, and a tuberculosis sanitarium that would become Central DuPage Hospital. By the time I was in school, in 1970, the village had grown to 4,285 residents. Today the population approaches ten thousand Winfielders. The hospital is the largest employer in town, along with the school district and some stores. For the most part, Winfield is a bedroom community; workers live in Winfield but drive or take the train to their jobs in other places. Wikipedia lists a number of famous people who have lived in Winfield: professional athletes, writers, artists, and the like. My name is not yet on that list. Also missing from the list is Colonel Robert McCormick, whose mansion is just south of the village. McCormick once owned the Chicago Tribune. His estate has become a museum commemorating his life and remembering his service with the First Infantry Division of the United States Army. The property also includes flower gardens, picnic grounds, and a display of tanks on which children have climbed and played for years. The McCormick Estate is called Cantigny—technically pronounced “canteen” for the place in France, but always given the obvious three-syllable designation by those of us who lived nearby.

Wikipedia also mentions Schmidt’s pond, from which ice was harvested every winter to sell to families during the spring and summer and fall. Peter Schmidt dug the pond and began the ice business, but my mother knew it as the Klein pond and I knew it as the Enders pond, since the land changed ownership over the years. In the late 1980s, I met two women in Chicago who had traveled out to Winfield and visited the Kleins when they were girls, long before I was born. The pond was across the street and on the other side of the creek from the house where I lived.

My mother attended a one-room schoolhouse. I went to the same school years later, but several wings had been attached to the original structure, and a new Middle School was built across the street while I was a student. I walked to school every day regardless of the weather, went home for lunch and returned for afternoon classes, and walked home again at the end of the day. The walk was short; I had to walk farther to catch the bus that took me to high school after I graduated from eighth grade.

I cannot go home again. Our house was built in a flood plain. A few years ago it was bought by the local government and leveled. Other than the school and Cantigny, not much remains from the village that I remember. Things change. People change. The landmarks of my childhood live on only in memory. J.

Orientation

The compass directions have always been essential to my sense of belonging. I learned the four directions faster than I learned to tell right from left. When I would face north in first grade, I knew that my right hand was on my east side and my left hand was on my west side. (Our desks faced north in the classroom, and the American flag to which we pledged allegiance was on the north wall of the room.) It helped that I grew up in a Midwestern town in which all the streets ran either north and south or east and west. I could find my way around town because I always had a sense of which way was north, and I could always determine the other directions knowing which way was north.

In the olden days, people who woke up in a strange place while traveling looked to the rising sun in the east to figure out where they were and how to get where they were going. In other words, they oriented themselves. Nowadays, we speak of orientation for new beginnings—starting a new job, for example, or beginning a new school year. Orientation no longer requires determining which direction is east, but it still involves knowing where one is and what things surround one so that one can accomplish the required tasks.

My sister and her husband bought a house many years ago in a neighborhood/development that had curving streets and houses that faced various directions. Getting to their house confused my sense of direction; as a result, when visiting their house, I had the strange experience of seeing the sun setting in what appeared and felt like the northern sky. I promised myself that I would never live in such a neighborhood. Needless to say, I was not able to keep that promise. My house today faces northeast instead of east, and the sun never seems to be where I feel that it should be. I have noticed that even in the shower I become disoriented. When my eyes are closed because I have been shampooing my hair, I reach for the wall of the shower stall and instead touch the corner. I have been facing north, being guided by an internal compass and not by the actual shape of the stall.

Developers build neighborhoods with curving streets for two reasons. Sometimes they are following the contour of the land. Even where the land is flat, though, they design curving streets to force drivers to travel slowly. This is intended to make the neighborhoods safer, especially for children playing in front of their houses. I don’t know if that purpose is achieved. I know only that I lose my sense of direction, my orientation, in such neighborhoods. The sun, the moon, the brighter stars, and aircraft in the sky all seem to dart from place to place while I drive. I understand one reason for reports of UFOs suddenly appearing or rapidly moving from spot to spot. When the road curves, one’s sense of the sky becomes distorted.

As families and teachers prepare for a new school year, and as other people aim toward new beginnings, I hope and pray that we remain oriented. Knowing where you are is essential to accomplishing whatever you went there to do. J.

A Living Cubs Fan’s Continuing Lament

We are now in a position to answer a question that was raised in 2016—and was also mentioned frequently before that year. “Are Cubs fans the same kind of people now that their team has won a championship, or did the record of futility make Cubs fans a special breed, apart from other sports fans?”

The Chicago Cubs were one of the first professional baseball teams, and in the early years of baseball they were one of the better teams. They set a record of success in 1906, winning 116 games (more than three-quarters of the games they played), but they lost the World Series to their fellow Chicago team, the White Sox. They went on to win the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908. They would win the National League pennant seven more times over the next thirty-seven years, failing each time to win the World Series. Their drought then would become more spectacular, so that by 1980 Cubs’ fan Steve Goodman could sing woefully, “The Cubs haven’t won the National League pennant since the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.” The year 1969 saw them squander a significant lead at the end of the season, falling behind the New York Mets. Six times they reached the playoffs between 1984 and 2008, each time failing to grasp the pennant. Many years between 1945 and 2008, the Cubs were woefully behind their competitors in the National League, allowing their fans to turn their attention to football by the time August arrived. But to be a sports fan in Chicago was generally unrewarding in those years. Someone like me, born in 1962, could live into the middle of the 1980s glumly aware that Chicago sports teams had not won championships in any of the major sports—baseball, football, basketball, or hockey—in my lifetime.

The Cubs in particular were labeled “Lovable Losers.” Fans filled the ballpark, Wrigley Field, on warm summer afternoons when the Cubs played at home. Some fans grumbled that the owners of the Cubs would not bother to produce a winning team so long as the fans showed up to watch their teams lose. Other matters were also blamed for the Cubs’ lack of success. Some said they were exhausted playing home games in the heat of the day while other teams benefited from playing at night. Some said that the team was cursed—a billygoat named Murphy, denied a ticket to accompany his owner to a World
Series game in 1945, was the legendary source of the curse. Big matters and small matters combined to make Cubs fans feel cheated of the championship their team deserved—especially in the years 1969, 1984, and 2003. But Cubs fans remained faithful to their team, raising questions about what would happen to them should their team ever break their losing pattern and win a World Series.

 The team was purchased by the Ricketts family after the 2009 season. Two years later Theo Epstein was hired away from the Boston Red Sox to be President of the franchise. Epstein rebuilt the team from the ground up, bringing young talent into the minor leagues while gradually reforming the major league club through trades and free agent signings. Joe Madden was hired to manage the Cubs after the 2014 season. In 2015, the Cubs made the playoffs as a Wild Card team, defeating the Pirates and the Cardinals before being swept by the Mets for the pennant. The next year, 2016, was the year that the Cubs changed history, ending their 108-year drought by becoming champions in dramatic fashion, winning the final game of the World Series after midnight on the morning of November 3.

During the Christmas holiday of 2016, my father and I talked about the Cubs. I expressed the hope that their championship team would be like the 1990s Chicago Bulls—who won six championships in an eight-year run—and not like the 1980s Chicago Bears—who won but a single Super Bowl despite the talent and popularity of their roster. Sadly, the Cubs turned out to be like the Bears. They returned to the playoffs at the end of the next three seasons, but they fell short of gaining another National League pennant, let alone winning another championship. Gradually, their stars vanished. Some, like Dexter Fowler, signed with other teams. Others, like Ben Zobrist, retired. Finally, during the summer of 2021, Cubs management traded away the biggest remaining stars—Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez. Gathering younger and unproven talent in their trades, the Cubs began positioning themselves for possible success in future years, while resigning themselves and their fans to another period of futility reminiscent of the Cubs of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Why did the Cubs fail to repeat their championship success of 2016? Some fans blame manager Joe Maddon. Indeed, some Cubs fans insist that the Cubs succeeded in 2016 in spite of Joe Maddon. He made questionable decisions, particularly in the last three games of the World Series. Maddon overused Aroldis Chapman to preserve the victories in games five and six, exhausting him to the point that he surrendered the tying runs of game seven. Then Maddon removed Kyle Hendricks sooner than he should have in game seven, bringing in Jon Lester and David Ross for sentimental (rather than strategic) reasons. Lester and Ross also allowed runs to score, narrowing the margin of victory before Chapman’s struggles.

Maddon and the coaching staff did not serve the players well in Chicago. Even during the playoff games of their championship season, many of the young batters were distressingly ineffective against opposition pitching. While they showed some ability to adjust to pitchers when seeing them multiple times in the same series, too often Cubs batters misread pitches, swinging at offerings well outside the strike zone, thus wasting multiple at-bats. The same problems continued to plague the same batters in following seasons. Modern batters in general, but particularly those who brought a single trophy to Chicago in recent years, seem more concerned with launch angle and exit velocity than they are with making contact with the baseball and directing it to the part of the field where the fielders are not already standing. The fact that Maddon’s term as manager of the Angels was terminated this summer reinforces the opinion that his leadership was overrated and that he caused more harm than good to the players he was managing.

Other fans suggest that the Cubs’ players lost their competitive edge—their “hunger”—after the dramatic winning season of 2016. Michael Jordan and the Bulls remained hungry (although even Jordan had to take time off in the middle of the championship run). Other teams also are able to maintain success year after year, preserving their desire to succeed even in wake of a championship season. Those teams seem able to replace players and keep on winning without having to tear apart the entire team and rebuild after just one championship.

Some fans believe that it’s just a Chicago thing, or just a Cubs thing. Continuing success is not a tradition in Chicago, at least not in baseball and football. Chicago fans support their teams, win or lose; it appears that, as a result, their teams lose more often than they win. It seems unlikely that many (or perhaps any) of the Cubs from the 2016 championship will maintain sufficient success in their careers to be voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Jon Lester might be a candidate for the Hall, given his earlier successes in Boston as well as his years with the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo could rise to the level of a Hall of Fame player if he has a few good seasons with the Yankees. Otherwise, the players that Cubs fans learned to love in recent years now past will likely be treated as merely average players, or some of them slightly better than average. Meanwhile, regarding the current team, Cubs fans wait to see whether they are pouring a foundation for future success or merely digging another hole in which to bury the hopes of their faithful followers.

Which brings me back to my original question: is it the same, cheering for a Cubs team that has one championship in its recent history, or has the glamor of supporting “Lovable Losers” been dispelled by that one good year? Are life-long supporters of the Chicago Cubs worthy of respect from the fans of more fortunate and successful teams, or are we no different from the fans of any other struggling team? I do not yet know the answers to those questions. J.

A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-7

             

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.”

As Christians, we know that faith is important. We are saved by God’s grace through faith. We repeat the slogan of the Reformation:  Grace alone, Faith alone, Scripture alone. We understand that we cannot please God without faith. Through faith, we are right with God and our entire lives are pleasing to him. But, using the word “faith” so often, we sometimes forget to stop and define the word “faith,” to understand what we mean when we use the word “faith.”

              Searching the Scriptures for a definition of faith, some Christians have settled upon Hebrews 11:1—“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen.” This verse is a good description of faith, but a good description is not a definition. For example, I could describe a golf ball as small, round, and with a hard surface. I could also describe a chicken egg as small, round, and with a hard surface. Those descriptions are accurate, but we had better not treat a golf ball like a chicken egg, or treat a chicken egg like a golf ball. In the same way, hoping for things and being convinced of unseen things describes faith, but not all hope and conviction is saving Christian faith.

              To some people, it does not matter what you believe, so long as you believe something. To those people, all religions are the same. Jews and Christians and Muslims all believe in a God, so they must all believe in the same God. Hindus and Buddhists also have faith, so their faith must be just as good. In fact, if someone chooses to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that faith is equally valid as any other religion. Most people who begin with that vague description of faith end up believing in themselves. They trust their own minds to tell them what is true. They trust their own hearts to tell them what is important. They trust their own actions to earn rewards for them on earth and in heaven. This faith, they think, is good enough. As long as they have faith, they have everything they need.

              The same writer who told us that faith is assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not seen proceeds to give us examples of faith. All these examples come from the Old Testament. The list of examples might remind us of Sunday School or Vacation Bible school, where we first learned about Noah and Abraham and other heroes who trusted God and served God and were pictures of how we should trust and serve God today. Looking at these heroes, we gain more understanding of faith. We gain more understanding of what it means to be saved by God’s grace alone through faith alone.

              But even these pictures can be misunderstood if we study them only for conviction and hope. We try to understand faith by seeing the faith of these heroes from ancient times. We try to understand faith by looking at Christians today. We try to understand faith by looking at ourselves and asking if we have faith. We might see faith and hear faith and feel faith. We see faith in the faithful things done by believers. Noah built an ark. Abraham traveled to Canaan and waited for his promised son to be born. We hear faith in the words people speak. When we study the creeds of the Church, we hear words of hope and conviction being spoken. We might find faith shaping our feelings, as we feel hope and conviction in our minds and in our hearts. But actions and words and feelings might still confuse us. We might continue to struggle, trying to identify genuine faith, trying to separate it from faith in the wrong god or faith in one’s own self.

              To define faith, instead of merely describing faith, we must remember that faith is a relationship between ourselves and God. Those who have faith trust God. We trust God’s promises. We trust that those promises have been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, God’s Son. We do not begin this relationship. God began this relationship in us. He sent his Spirit to us, so we would know and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. God grants us faith so we can be his people, his saints. He grants us faith so we can do the things that saints do as the people belonging to God.

              Consider the example of Abel. He was the son of Adam and Eve, but he had an older brother named Cain. We read in Genesis that Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices to God. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but rejected the sacrifice of Cain. Genesis does not give us information about why God preferred Abel’s sacrifice. Many writers and preachers have said that Abel gave God the best of what he had, but Cain offered only a portion of what he had, not his best. This sounds sensible, but that answer is not complete. From the letter to the Hebrews, we learn that Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God because Abel offered his sacrifice through faith. His sacrifice, given through faith, made him righteous in the sight of God. Cain went through the proper motions, giving a sacrifice to God, but going through the motions is not good enough. Cain did not have faith, even though he was offering a sacrifice to God. His focus was not on the promises of God, the hope offered by God’s promises. His focus was on himself, on the actions he was performing. For that reason, his sacrifice was not accepted.

              From Genesis, we know the earthly results of that difference. Cain struck out in anger against his brother Abel and murdered Abel. This was the first murder in history and the first physical death of a human being. When God questioned Cain about Abel, Cain tried to hide his sin. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked God. Of course, we are all responsible for the welfare of our brothers and sisters and neighbors. We should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Cain deserved judgment for his sin, but God marked Cain so that Cain would not be punished by the rest of his family. Abel, meanwhile, was dead. His body was left behind on earth; his soul waits in Paradise for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting in a new and sinless world. Because Abel had faith, we have confidence of his citizenship in that new world.

              We know less about Enoch than we know about Abel. His name appears in that line of ancestors that runs from Adam to Abraham and from Abraham down to Christ. We also know that unlike Abel, unlike most people, Enoch did not die. He walked with God, the book of Genesis reports, and then he was not. He left this world without dying, ascending into heaven as Elijah later ascended into heaven. Jesus also ascended into heaven, but only after dying and then rising again on the third day. Those three men had their bodies taken into heaven, while the rest of us leave our bodies buried on earth when our souls depart and go to Paradise. But we know the reason Enoch had this special blessing from God: Enoch had faith in God. Through faith, Enoch was found pleasing to God. The book of Hebrews reminds us that without faith, it is impossible to please God. We can do many good works, but if we do them while measuring ourselves for our own goodness, those good works do not count in God’s records. We see the good works of the saints and know that they have faith; God sees the faith in the hearts of his saints and calls them righteous. Therefore, because of their faith, he rewards their good works. Some people keep score. They want to tell God how many good deeds they have done for them. To those people, on Judgment Day, Jesus will say, “Go away; I never knew you.” But when he welcomes believers into his new creation, he will mention their good works, and those believers will say, “When did we do those good things?” They were not keeping score, because their faith was focused on Jesus and not on themselves. Their hope was in Jesus, not in themselves. Their conviction was in the promises of Jesus and the things Jesus did; their conviction was not about their own actions or words or feelings. We know the saints by their good works, but we know our place among the saints by our confidence in Jesus—not by the things we do for Jesus.

              Noah is famous for the things he did. Following the instructions of God, he built an ark. He began building that ark long before the first raindrops fell. He had a warning from God, and Noah also had the conviction that God’s warning was true, not an empty threat. He followed God’s instructions, building the ark, condemning the sinfulness of the world in which he lived, and providing a way to save the lives of those who believed in God. Only eight people were saved on that ark—Noah, his wife, their three sons, and the wives of those sons. God also sent to Noah representatives of all the animals of the earth so they could survive the flood and fill the earth. For a year, these eight people and all these animals lived on the ark. The earth was covered with water. Sinners drowned, and the results of their sinful lives were washed off the surface of the earth. Noah and his family landed in a new world, ready to start a new life. This new world was not without sin; Noah himself sinned in the new world. But the promises of God remained true. Noah, in his obedience, preserved life in the world and carried that life into a new world. Noah, by his faith, was considered worthy by God, worthy to survive the washing of the world and to begin again in the new world. We also, like Noah, will enter a new world, purified by fire rather than by water. We will enter that new world because, by faith, we have been found worthy. By faith, we have become heirs of righteousness. By faith, we have been claimed by God and promised eternal life in his new creation.

              By building the ark, Noah became a savior. He was a picture of Jesus Christ, the true Savior. Noah’s wooden ark saved lives and carried them into a new world. The wooden cross on which Jesus suffered and died saves our lives and carries us into a new world. Noah lived in a sinful world, but he saw that world washed clean of sin by the water of the flood. We also live in a sinful world, but our sins are washed away by the water of Holy Baptism. Through the gift of Baptism, we are guaranteed forgiveness and eternal life. We pass through the water of Baptism into a new world, being granted new life in Christ. Our faith is not in the water; water does not save us. Our faith is in the promises of Jesus and in the work Jesus did to keep those promises. Because we have faith in Jesus, we are saved through Baptism and made heirs of eternal life in a new world.

              Enoch walked with God. He pleased God by his life, but that holy life was only acceptable to God through faith. We also walk with God through faith. We confess our sins to God, knowing by faith that those sins are forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus. Enoch left the world in a special way, not passing through death and the grave. But our Savior, Jesus Christ, passed through death and the grave, making that path through the valley of the shadow of death a highway we may travel. Walking with Jesus, we survive this sinful world. Walking with Jesus, we cross the valley of death and find our home with God in a new world. We will live with him forever in that new creation, being raised by Jesus so we can be his people forever.

              We walk with Jesus on earth. When we die, we will be like Abel, leaving our bodies behind on earth but waiting in Paradise for the resurrection to eternal life. Abel, the first murder victim, was not silent even on earth after he had been killed. God told Cain that his brother’s blood was crying out for justice. But Abel, having faith in God, became a picture of our Savior even as Noah in his obedience was a picture of our Savior. Jesus also was a victim of sin and evil. The blood of Jesus also cries to his Father. But while Abel’s blood cried out for justice, the blood of Jesus cries out for mercy. The blood of Jesus cries out for our forgiveness. The blood of Jesus marks us, not as murderers, but as saints. Washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, we are called righteous by God, made heirs of eternal life.

              Abel offered a sacrifice that was pleasing to God because he offered his sacrifice in faith. His sacrifice was a picture of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, the sacrifice that removes all our sins and makes us acceptable in the sight of God. We identify true faith, saving faith, when we see that it focuses on the sacrifice of Jesus and not on the things we do. Being cleansed by God’s grace through faith, we strive to imitate Jesus. Being made acceptable to God through the sacrifice of Jesus, we make every effort to live as God’s people. But our faith, our hope, our conviction, focuses always on Jesus and not on ourselves.

              By God’s grace, we are saved through faith. This faith brings us conviction that God’s promises are true and hope that we belong to God forever. This hope will not fail us, because God always keeps his promises. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.     

Lammas Day

August 1 is Lammas Day. This holiday was once an agricultural festival in parts of Europe, marking the end of cutting hay and the beginning of harvesting wheat and other grains. As the midpoint between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, Lammas Day was well-placed for an excuse to celebrate, but the day has fallen into neglect in recent times.

Solstices, equinoxes, and the midpoints between them were always excuses for a party, although no single culture observed all eight occasions. Christianity successfully overwhelmed the winter solstice with its celebration of the Incarnation of Christ, being the twelve days of Christmas; likewise, the spring equinox was overshadowed by the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, or Easter. A few contemporary Christians back away from those celebrations out of fear that our revelry has been tainted by pagan customs. Paul wrote to the Colossians that Christians are not to judge one another regarding food (kosher laws), Sabbaths (Saturday, Sunday, or some other time in the week), or holidays. We are free to celebrate as we wish, provided that Christ remains at the center of our celebrations.

In the United States, Memorial Day and Labor Day have replaced the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox as the start and end of summer. Independence Day, on the Fourth of July, has become the new midpoint for the summer season. The other three midpoints linger on the calendar as Groundhog Day, May Day, and Halloween. Lammas Day is forgotten, and the month of August is barren of days to celebrate. Some of us have birthdays and wedding anniversaries in August, and many families mark the month of August as back-to-school time. Poor Lammas Day has nothing to connect to those themes and observances.

On my Facebook page this morning I said a few words about Lammas Day. I also claimed that the harvest workers would dance in the fields, singing this song (click here). Maybe, just maybe, we can work together to create a new Lammas Day tradition to share with our families and friends, another day on the calendar for us to stop, relax, and rejoice. J.