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.

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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.

Update and season’s greetings

I cannot predict my WordPress status for the next several days.

My home computer and WordPress are not interfacing well. When I go to my Reader page and try to scroll, the screen alternates between freezing and rolling uncontrollably, making it hard for me to click on a visit button before it escapes my pointer. Since I will not be able to use my work computer for the next few days, I may have problems visiting all the blogs I love and enjoy.

I have a project in mind, though, that I will try to post over the twelve days of Christmas. It involves picking up where I left off with Martin Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. The next topic will be prayer.

If I don’t have the opportunity to visit your site and wish you a Merry Christmas, please accept my best wishes all that same. May the Lord bless your celebration of His holy days. To Jesus be the glory. J.

Christmas tree past

With apologies to the late Tom Petty… and to my son:

 

He’s a good boy, but sometimes curious,

Can’t help touching what he sees.

It’s a blue spruce, but make of plastic

With ornaments of ceramic and glass.

It’s got colored lights and shiny tinsel.

It’s wobbly, won’t stand up straight.

He’s a good boy, but sometimes curious,

Can’t help touching what he sees:

Now the tree—

Tree falling!

The tree–

Tree falling!

J.

Writing about writing

I was hoping to publish a new story a week ago for First Friday Fiction, but the writing is not going well. This short story is meant to accompany Alibi or Lie, Tom Haven Takes a Leap, and The Mystery of the Yellow MustangIt takes place during the holiday season of Thanksgiving through Christmas. So far, though, I have not been able to develop the dramatic tension that the other three stories possess. I hoped that, once I started writing, additional ideas would occur to me. So far that has not happened.

On the other hand, I have managed to publish my novella through Amazon.com’s CreateSpace. I will leave it available for free on this site for another week or two before withdrawing it; for those who are interested, the book will sell for six dollars. I had one disappointment while creating the book: none of the stock images available for the cover match the story. I ended up using an image of theatrical masks, which can loosely be associated with the story. I would have preferred either a single rose or a romantic couple in silhouette, but neither of those images was offered. (By the way, more than two hundred people have clicked on my novella page and presumably read at least some of it; two have indicated that they like it.)

Last month I took part in a book signing and sale. Forty self-published authors paid for the privilege of spending four hours in a room at the public library with copies of their books to sign and sell. More than half the people who came to the event had a single author to visit, went straight to that author, and left without interacting with the other thirty-nine. I cannot complain: five of the six books I sold were to one person who came only to see me. Other people cruised the room to see what was available. Two of those visitors made a deliberate effort to visit with each author and to ask questions about our books. Other people were interested only in certain topics, not in everything available. As I mentioned to another author near me after the first hour, “They look at my table and see ‘Jesus’ and ‘Bible,’ and they look away as fast as they can. Then they look at your table and see ‘God’s plan,’ and again they look away as fast as they can.” In the future I think I will aim to have shorter book signings with more targeted audiences, but it was interested to try the library’s event one time.

My family has not sent Christmas cards for several years, but I thought we would send cards this year to the cousins and college friends who have kept in touch in this way. In shameless self-promotion, I will include a note telling what each member of the household is doing and mentioning the books I have published this year. I also have a canvas bag in my car with several copies of each of those books, but I never have the courage to tell people that I have books for sale. The fun is in the writing, not in the advertising and promotion. So far I’ve given away more copies of my books than I’ve sold. But at least I’ve achieved my life-long dream to be an author. J.

E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.

Sitting in the shadow of the moon

Two years ago I knew that a total solar eclipse would happen in the United States on August 21, 2017. By last summer I had already calculated which communities accessible to me and my family were on the path of maximum totality. By Christmas I was making plans to contact a church in one of those communities to see if my family could bring a picnic and watch the eclipse from their property. I was already surveying the communities through Google Earth ™ checking to see which of them was best suited for watching the sky and the surrounding landscape and also contained a church that might accept my request to borrow their property for part of a day.

I shared my plans with my extended family during our Christmas celebration. One of my relatives replied, “My home is on the path of the eclipse.” At first I demurred—the house in question was near the edge of the totality, not at the center. Besides, I would rather host the event than merely be a guest there. By the start of this summer, I scaled down my expectations and accepted this relative’s invitation.

The family gathering was diverse, including a boy almost one year old and a man almost ninety years old. Several people had assorted ideas about where best to watch the eclipse. In the end, we selected the porch and front yard of a member of the family—not the same member who made the initial invitation. We knew that the young children could be indoors part of the time, and also knew that some of us could walk or drive about a quarter mile, as the moon’s umbra approached, to see the shadow move over a wider landscape than could be seen from the house.

The group was equipped with enough eclipse glasses, although two of the women did not dare to look in the direction of the sun even with proper protection. I showed how to make a pinhole projector to monitor the progress of the moon across the sun. Once the eclipse surpassed fifty percent, sunlight filtered through the leaves of the trees also began casting crescent-shaped shadows like those of the pinhole. As the eclipse progressed, we noticed the changing colors of the sky and the foliage. Finally, in the deepening gloom, three of us walked the quarter mile to the better viewing area. We could see clouds in the distance already darkened by the shadow of the moon. Observed through the glasses, the sun appeared only to be a sliver of light in the sky.

Yet we could see each other and the surrounding area quite well throughout the event. It was never darker than the dusk of a sunset, even when we could remove the glasses and look at the corona of the sun surrounding the moon. Only a star or two was visible in the sky. Then, after a minute, it was over. The sun was again a sliver as seen through the glasses, and daylight conditions gradually returned. No nighttime animals came out of their homes, although daytime animals did quiet for the peak of the eclipse.

Only one member of the family claimed to feel disappointed by the experience. My excitement was increased by that of two young women in the family—one in her early twenties and the other in her mid-thirties. They were awed and interested by every step of the process. Most of us were very glad we took part in the experience.

The next total solar eclipse in the United States will be in April 2024. I don’t know where I will be living then, but I know that I will again do whatever is necessary to be in the path of the moon’s shadow. This time I will be more assertive about choosing a location near the center of the path rather than on the edge. J.

Waiting for the shadow of the moon

I’ve never made a bucket list. I am much more inclined to live in the moment, to take one day at a time. However, if I had composed a bucket list, right at the top would be viewing a solar eclipse like the one happening next Monday.

I’ve been fascinated by astronomy since I was a boy. I watched the Apollo space program on television and wanted to be an astronaut. I learned about the planets in our solar system (back when Pluto was still a planet) and read about comets and meteors, stars and galaxies, quasars and supernovas, and all the other fascinating things to be found in the heavens. Part of the appeal of Star Trek and Star Wars is the dream of interplanetary travel, although the reality is likely to be far closer to 2001: Space Odyssey. I have seen a comet, experienced several partial solar eclipses, and watched lunar eclipses from beginning to end. I’ve gotten out of bed at 4 a.m. to watch meteors. The coming eclipse will round out years of watching the sky and marveling at God’s creation.

No doubt many Christian writers and speakers are trying to find spiritual metaphors in the eclipse of the sun. A few are even making apocalyptic predictions based on this perfectly ordinary event. Aside from the classic contrast of light and darkness, I don’t see that the eclipse has much to tell us about redemption or new life in Christ. On the other hand, such an eclipse does speak of the wonder of God’s creation. Our Earth is the only known planet whose moon appears to be the same size as does the sun from the surface of the planet. An eclipse with a much bigger moon or with a much smaller moon could never be the marvel that this eclipse will be. The entire arrangement is beautifully planned.

Needless to say, I have long since been sure to be on vacation for this event. I will have to drive several hours, but I am blessed with family living right in the path of the totality. My room there is already reserved. The only problem is the question of the best location for viewing the eclipse. Some of the family is content to relax in the back yard; after all, the sun and the moon will be overhead—what else would anyone want? My father and I already understand one factor that the other members of the family are missing—the arrival of the moon’s shadow will be dramatic as it soundlessly roars across the landscape at a speed faster than sound.

Every shadow has two components—the entire shadow, and the core of the shadow. Generally we see shadows projected across a surface that is near the object causing the shadow. Therefore, we do not observe the two components. When a more distant object casts a shadow, the blurred edges of the shadow are outside the core, but they are still part of the shadow. The moon is about 239,000 miles from the earth. A dramatic difference exists between its entire shadow and the core of the shadow. A partial eclipse happens outside the core, in the rest of the shadow. At ninety percent or more, the partial eclipse can still be spectacular. But as the core of that shadow arrives, everything changes. My father and I want to be sitting where we can see that shadow tear across the landscape toward us. Yet we do not want to oversell the experience (or give away too many secrets), so we are looking for a compromise that will give us some chance to see the shadow approaching without straying far from the property.

Thinking about shadows, and light and darkness, leads me to another random observation. We see with our eyes. In the back of our eyes are two sets of receptors, called rods and cones. With rods we sense light and darkness; with cones we perceive colors. The cones require more light to work than do the rods. Therefore, in dim light we see things in black and white and in shades of gray. In brighter light, we are able to make out more colors. As the Moody Blues remarked (“Nights in White Satin”), in the nighttime and early morning, “red is black; and yellow, white.” Or, as I tease my children, one sees many yellow cars on the road during the day, but hardly any yellow cars are noticed at night. Do people who own yellow cars only drive during the daytime?

Here is my spiritual take on light and darkness. We see and comprehend many things about creation now, but as the Bible says, we see in a glass dimly. In the new creation, we will see and know things more fully. Other bloggers that I follow have been speculating about heaven in the last few days. I think that the contrast between the lives we live now and the lives we will live then resembles the contrast between what we can see early in the morning before sunrise and what we can see when the sun is high in the sky. Much more will be revealed to us in that new creation than we are capable of perceiving today. What puzzles us now will make sense then, and the harmony of creation will resonate in our lives in ways we cannot even picture or describe today. J.

A charming wedding

Earlier this month I attended the wedding of my friend Mary to Walter Aznoe, a funeral director she has known for the past three years. It was his second wedding and her fourth, but it still was a beautiful ceremony for all involved. About three dozen people were there, all of us family or friends of Mary or of Walter. Afterward we had cake and punch in the church basement and assured the bride and groom of our best wishes.

Mary was born to Edna Hatter and William Little. William (usually called Bill) was a local businessman who dabbled in politics. Edna was an attorney who kept her last name for professional reasons. Mary and her two brothers hyphenated the two names, creating somewhat of a tongue-twister for their teachers.

When she was eighteen, Mary wed Elliott Richard Lamb, the richest man in the state. The marriage gathered a lot of attention, since he was sixty years old, more than three times her age. They had ten happy years as husband and wife—at least they both seemed happy—before he passed away, leaving his entire fortune to his young wife.

She then enjoyed an active life, attending concerts and plays, becoming acquainted with many of the younger public figures around town. Eventually she caught the eye of Johnny Fleas (real name, Claude Itzfliesvas), a semi-famous jazz pianist. Both thirty years old, the two remained in the public eye throughout their marriage. They had a son and a daughter. After seven years, their marriage burst apart with great acrimony. Public shouting matches and rumors of worse in private, as well as infidelity on his part, led finally to a split. Mary retired from her public life to raise her children.

Five years later, she was walking up the church aisle once again, this time to wed the Rev. Hezekiah White. Pastor White, a Methodist minister, professed astonishment to family and friends that after decades of bachelorhood, he had found a woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Alas, he had only five years left to him before a heart attack robbed Mary of yet another husband.

Walter handled the funeral arrangements for the minister, as he also handled arrangement for most members of the congregation when they passed away. Within a few months, the mortician and the minister’s wife were an item around town, as they say. Walter’s first wife, Ruth, had died about a year earlier. All of us who knew them urged them to tie the knot, but Mary resisted. Having been twice widowed and once divorced, she was content to leave things the way they were. It took two years of courting (with many a wink and smile behind their backs) before the couple finally agreed to make their marriage legal and respectable.

The point of this story? There are actually two points to be made. The first is this: Mary Hatter-Little Lamb Itzfliesvas White Aznoe. The second is this (rim shot, please): It’s one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready, and four to go. J.

Good morning, Colonel!

I waved to the Colonel again this morning, and he waved back. He is a retired colonel of the United States Army. He probably does not know who I am—I am just a face behind the steering wheel of a car. But we frequently cross paths in the morning. He walks west on the sidewalk, part of his morning routine, walking for his health. I drive east on the street, on my way to work. We do not see each other every morning—neither of us has a routine so precise that one could set a watch by our passing. But when I see him, I wave, and most of the time he waves back.

His wife and I have spoken a few times. She represents our part of the city in the state legislature. Last year she and her staff helped to unravel a difficulty my family was having with a state agency. To the state agency, we were just another family in the system, to be passed from desk to desk and phone to phone with no resolution in sight. Once the agency heard from an elected official, though, they were able to produce the paperwork my family needed, and they did so quickly. They say that you can’t fight city hall, but if you know how to go over their heads, even the most powerful government agencies will respond.

Therefore, it is partly out of gratitude to his wife that I have started greeting the Colonel with a friendly wave. At the same time, I am grateful to him as well. I don’t know all the details of his service, but a little internet research tells me that he spent thirty years in the army, including two tours in Vietnam. He has risked his life fighting for his country. He deserves no less than a friendly wave from a passing stranger in the morning.

The Colonel and I have never spoken to each other, and possibly we never will. We don’t even smile when we wave to each other. I know that he waves to other drivers when they wave to him first. Our greetings are part of the morning routine, part of being neighborly. I like to think, though, that they are a little more than that. I like to think that my anonymous greeting is a thank you to the Colonel and to his wife for their faithful service. J.