God’s grace is sufficient

The first time I received therapy, one of the main issues I learned to handle was avoiding my emotions. For most of my life, I had believed that virtue consisted of ignoring emotions. Courage, for example, is not lack of fear; courage is doing the right and proper thing despite fear. Resisting temptation is largely ignoring what feels right and instead doing what one knows to be right. Love is not a feeling; it is a conscious choice to help another person, to make that person’s wants and needs more important than one’s own wants and needs, to be a servant to others rather than making other people one’s tools to be used or one’s obstacles to be overcome.

Anxiety and depression, then, were merely bad feelings to be shoved aside. They were impediments to doing what was right, but I could still do what was right despite those feelings. If my anxiety sometime was expressed in outbursts of rage, then that rage was simply a bad temper, one more feeling to try to control. If my depression made me resist getting out of bed or getting work accomplished, I got out of bed anyhow and got my work done anyhow, no matter, how I felt. In some ways, those accomplishments were a noble victory; in others, they reflected an incomplete awareness of my life, a lack of emotional health that was keeping me from reaching my potential.

My first therapist helped me to understand that feelings are important. Feelings are inner communication, warning that something is not right and needs to be corrected. This therapist helped me learn how to recognize triggers that lead to anxiety. Awareness of what was out of balance in my life helped to establish ways of correcting the imbalance rather than muddling through the situation. But being able to list the reasons I might feel depressed in 2020—reasons such as quarantine and isolation, political turmoil, job uncertainty, aging, and changes in the family—were not enough to help me overcome the feelings of depression. They were not enough to stop me from making some bad decisions in response to those feelings.

My second therapist is helping me work toward a new awareness of balance. She is not telling me to ignore my feelings, but she is demonstrating how to make a cognitive response to an inaccurate (or incomplete) feeling. We have discussed some of the typical human responses to stress—seeing only the bad and none of the good, feeling blame for problems over which one has no control, and assuming that things are not going to get better no matter what. One of the most perceptive approaches she has taken is to ask what I would say to a peer going through the same kinds of problems and discouraging situations. What I would say to someone else, I need also to say to myself.

Other factors are also part of the therapy she is recommending. I need to get sufficient exercise, find family members and friends who are supportive, and find ways to relax and recover energy. I pointed out that reading is my primary way of relaxing but also a way of escaping problems and being isolated from family and friends. (I have finished fifteen books since the beginning of the new year.) Because of downsizing of my department at work before the virus crisis, and because of the quarantine we have endured for ten months, I don’t have contact with friends outside the immediate family. Along with ways to balance those limitations, I am also learning to remind myself that “God’s grace is sufficient.” Could I lose my job because of further downsizing, accentuated by the virus crisis? I am doing my work duties to the best of my ability; I have no control over what the administration decides, and God’s grace is sufficient. Do I feel guilty that the congregation I serve is so small and has financial struggles? I am being faithful to God and his Church, and God’s grace is sufficient. Do gloomy Saturdays further deplete my strength to get things done—both necessary things and healthy, helpful things? I do what I can, and God’s grace is sufficient.

I am grateful to my online friends for your prayers and your encouraging words. I am grateful for medications and therapy, blessings from God that are provided for health and productivity. I am grateful that God’s grace is sufficient, even though I often forget that promise and look for something more. I am confident that, with God’s help, I will weather this storm, and that better things are coming. J.

Apathy in the darkness

People say that the two biggest problems facing western civilization these days are ignorance and apathy. How can we confront these two concerns? Frankly, I don’t know, and I don’t care.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a group of philosophers who called themselves Stoics sang the praises of apathy. They insisted that a virtuous person will not love anything in this world too much, not even a family member or a friend. The world, to Stoics, is a bad place, and everything in it is bad. They recalled the words of Socrates, who pictured the death of his body and the release of his soul as a bird flying free from its cage. So, for the Stoics, should be the attitude of every wise man and woman. We should be unencumbered by the things of this world. We should be seeking freedom from the physical world, freedom to become purely spirit, freedom not to care about food and drink, about clothing and shelter, about health and safety, or about any other matter than pertains only to our physical existence in this world.

Already two thousand years ago, a trade network linked the Mediterranean world with Persia, India, and China. Possibly Buddhist teachings traveled along this network, suggesting thoughts to the Stoic philosophers in the West. For Buddhists also seek to be unattached to the things of this world. Desire, or craving, leads to suffering. Learning to live without desire promotes life without suffering. Buddhists do not completely withdraw from the world—they consider proper vocation as important as proper beliefs and proper meditation. But behind all that is proper lies unattachment—freedom from desire for anything in this world, with the expectation of nirvana—complete freedom from suffering and from the burden of maintaining a self-identity.

In the Star Trek world, Vulcans practice the same apathy and non-attachment as Stoics and Buddhists. Vulcans seek to be guided by logic and reason, not by emotion. Scriptwriters could not resist toying with this philosophy, forcing Mr. Spock in one way or another to confront human emotion. Spock struggled to remain faithful to Vulcan values, to be apathetic and unattached, to be guided by logic unclouded by emotion. Doctor McCoy found Spock’s apathy to be cold and unappealing, but Captain Kirk often found Spock’s Vulcan ways to be helpful to the crew and the mission of the Enterprise.

This winter I am starting with a new therapist, hoping to overcome the burden of apathy. My own depression, combined with the challenges of the past year, have left me feeling burnt out and uncaring. The virus crisis, the year’s political chaos, and threats to my own job and income have exhausted my inner strength. Moreover, I have for years been taking medicine to help control my feelings of anxiety and depression. Christmas season was an ongoing struggle—I did not want to celebrate the holiday, and I did not want to spend time with family. I stopped caring about my health and well-being; I was uninterested in taking care of myself. My writing lagged. My personal space became increasingly cluttered and untidy. Even my decision to seek therapy comes, not from any desire of mine to recover, but from the insistence of family members that I need help.

Christians are not meant to be unattached. We are to love God whole-heartedly, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians are not meant to be apathetic. We are to hunger and thirst for righteousness; we are to mourn our sins and the world’s evil—then we can be comforted and satisfied. Christians do not seek a spiritual existence untouched by the physical world. When God created the world, what he made was good. When the world became corrupted by sin and rebellion and evil, God became a physical being, as human as we are, to redeem the world. He defeated death by dying and by rising to life again—rising with a body that could be touched, that could eat and drink with his disciples, that remained physical and human. He promises his people a resurrection to a new and perfect world where we will eat and drink together at his table and enjoy everything that was good in the first creation.

Not caring is a problem. The loss of emotion means fading into darkness, not walking in the light. Right now, I honestly don’t care, but with help I expect to start caring again. With that change, other parts of my life might also start falling into place, aligning in a way that is right for me and for those around me. J.

Unfinished business

My writing has stalled over the last few weeks, both because of the Christmas holidays and because of the political and social turmoil from our recent election and its aftermath.

In the next few days, I hope to continue my posts on socialism. I have at least five more to write: “education: privilege or right?” “the Cold War and socialism,” “socialism and totalitarianism,” “socialism, capitalism and race,” and, “the freedom of free markets.” I also need to compose a concluding, draw-it-together post. Then I can start editing what I have written, including helpful comments from several of you readers, with the intention of eventually publishing it as a book.

Meanwhile, I have several other books in the pipeline. In 2017-2018, I had twelve posts about the twelve days of Christmas; then, in December 2018, I had a series of Advent posts. I had hoped to combine these into a book last fall, but things slowed down with the other book I was writing. So I edited and printed those posts and used them as family devotions over Advent and Christmas. Now I’ve set that work aside for a few months, but next summer or early fall I’ll pull it out again, edit one more time, and send it to the publisher.

During the quarantine last spring I typed up some presentations I had made in previous years called “Witnesses to the Passion.” Each told the account of our Lord’s suffering and crucifixion from a different point of view: Simon Peter, Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, the soldier at the cross, the young man who ran away, and so on. I plan to compose two more presentations—a Temple guard who witnessed the arrest and trials of Jesus and was also posted to guard his tomb, and Thomas the apostle. Then I need a good introduction, and I can send this work to the publisher.

I also have two projects to begin writing. The first will be a series of devotions parallel to the witnesses of the Passion but looking more at items involved in the Passion: the thirty pieces of silver, the crown of thorns, and so on. I have not yet made my list of details to cover, but I hope to have at least forty, to make a Lenten devotional book. No doubt I will share some of those chapters as posts. The second was suggested by a woman in my Bible class. She says I ought to write a book about love: what the Bible means by love, how love is understood (and misunderstood) in our culture, and how to respond to our culture’s distorted versions of love. I’m a bit nervous about that book—it would possibly strike some people as intolerant, which certain people will not tolerate, as we all know. Perhaps that is all the more reason for me to write it.

Meanwhile, we still wrestle with issues related to the election and to the really stupid and futile response last week. Efforts by Democrats and the mainstream media to link every Trump supporter and every conservative to violence in the Capitol could, in a worst-case scenario, lead to repression of the conservative viewpoint—arrests, loss of jobs, being denied access to social media, and the like. With that in mind, I still want to risk two additional posts beyond the socialism posts I have mentioned. One would explore the possibility of the United States turning to a five-party system; the other would analyze voting fraud in the last election and would ask if it was illegal but not immoral.

There’s no telling what the future will bring. But these are my writing plans for the immediate future. J.

Maybe now I can cheer up…

“So, J., what did you do this weekend?”

Well, aside from church and sleeping and eating, I also moved some chairs around the house. You see, I’ve got this comfortable chair that we bought when we moved into the house some years ago. It was my main chair for watching television. I’ve seen many movies from that chair. I watched the Chicago Cubs win the World Series while sitting in that chair. When this year’s virus crisis kept us from gathering in family groups, I watched my daughter get married while sitting in that chair. When the sirens were blowing, I generally sat in that chair and watched the television coverage of where the storms were hitting and who needed to take cover. (One tornado came within a mile of our house while I was sitting in that chair.)

This spring we replaced the carpeting in that room and ended up redesigning the room. We got rid of our old AV storage and replaced it with new shelving, and at the same time we mounted the television on the wall. Now the family sofa is centered in front of the TV, and my old comfortable chair had retreated into a corner. I rarely sat in it any more. I decided this weekend to move that favorite chair into the library/reading room and put the chair I had been using there into the corner of the den/television room.

I am not as possessive of that chair as Archie Bunker was of his favorite chair. Other members of the household—including cats—have used that chair without any objection from me. Even when it was a new show, I recognized All in the Family as political propaganda, an attempt to persuade Americans that conservative politics are inevitably linked to racism and intolerance. Fifty years later, many Americans still believe that message. So please do not mistake me for Archie Bunker, even if I do have a favorite chair.

Also, I helped my daughter with some body work on her car. Four years ago, she was legally stopped at a stop sign shortly before midnight, and a white pickup truck took the corner too wide and struck her fender. The driver was, of course, uninsured. All these years she has been driving a car with a dented fender, and the rust was increasing on the fender. So, she did some research about the cost of replacement. All along she and I assumed that the work would need to be done at a body shop and would cost several hundred dollars. Last week, though, my daughter found the part for her car available online for sixty dollars, and she found a YouTube video showing how to replace a fender. So, I helped—but she did most of the work. It took a long time to get the old fender off—it would have been far easier if the car was put on a rack and the wheel was removed, because many of those bolts are hard to reach with the wheel in place. We finally got it off, though, and got the new piece in place. She is very happy to be driving a car that is less damaged than it was. She has requested new seat covers as a Christmas gift.

Oh, and this weekend I also published my latest book on Kindle and Amazon. My writing project for 2020 was The Child of Light and the Black Dog: Depression and Christian Faith. The publishing effort was a struggle that took part of Saturday and part of Sunday, because the publishing software didn’t like my files. (Also, the car repair took some time away from wrestling with the publisher.) The book is finally available, though—three dollars for the Kindle version and six for the print version.

With the book finally out of the way, I hope I can escape the cloud of darkness that hovered over its writing. Of course the election is looming on the horizon; but once that is decided and out of the way, perhaps a cheerful holiday season is on its way. J.

Social media distancing

This week one of my cousins sent me a message on Facebook, commenting that I have been quiet lately and asking if everything is all right. I waited a couple of days, then replied to her message, saying that I have been spending little time on Facebook recently. I proceeded to suggest that avoiding Facebook was good for my blood pressure.

I was tempted to go on to say that avoiding Facebook is also good for handling anxiety and depression and maintaining sobriety, but I didn’t want to concern her.

Actually, I have been lurking on Facebook, just not posting or commenting or even liking posts. When I feel my patience dwindling, I quickly turn off Facebook and visit somewhere else. Another of my cousins posted a link to the news story about the five hundred children from Mexico who were taken to the US border and left unclaimed; their parents still cannot be located. This cousin proceeded to say that anyone who still supports President Trump should unfriend him immediately. I was tempted, but I neither unfriended my cousin nor commented on his post. It is better to ignore such provocations and move on than to get involved in ugly political debate.

I am looking forward to election night—partly because of my ongoing interest in national politics, and partly in hope of a sense of closure for the year’s ugliness. I realize that I will probably go to bed that night not yet knowing who won the election—in fact, it might take days to count all the votes and declare a winner in the “swing states.” The media outlets that constantly remind us how far ahead Candidate Biden is in the polls and how desperate President Trump’s campaign must be feeling will have egg on their faces again next month, as the polls once again fail to judge correctly which Americans bother to vote and which have an opinion which they will not express with their ballots. Voter turnout will be key; President Trump motivated many citizens who do not usually vote to take part in the process four years ago. With the help of the national media, he may be drawing those same voters—who did not vote in 2018—to cast their ballots once again in his favor.

Last night during the debate, President Trump predicted not only that he will win the election but that Republicans will again reclaim the House of Representatives. Obviously, for President Trump that is a best case scenario. The national media not only expects the Democrats to keep the House but thinks that they might gain a narrow majority in the Senate as well. Once again, voter turnout will be the key. The campaigns and their advertisements are no longer designed to win over undecided voters; their purpose at this point is to motivate voters and persuade them to express their feelings with their votes.

Last night’s debate presented the President Trump that the Republicans want voters to see and also the Candidate Biden that Republicans want voters to see. Citizens who watched the debate saw a President who is in control, understands the issues, and has answers for the empty rhetoric of his opponent. They also saw a candidate who hesitates and stammers under pressure, who renounces several of the passions of his base supporters, and whose motivational campaign statements are becoming increasingly tired and worn.

We are still at the point where anything can happen. When the election results are announced, many people will be unhappy. My family is preparing as if for a winter storm, making sure we have enough supplies to shelter in place for several days in November. Somehow, by God’s grace, we will get through this together, and when the smoke clears, we will still have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. J.

World Mental Health Day, the Mayan Apocalypse, friendship, and other things

When the calendar turns to October, I remember the Mayan apocalypse of 2012. For me, that apocalypse was centered in the month of October, focused most distinctly on the tenth day of October. The Mayans maintained a complicated calendar which reset after many years, and the end of our year 2012 coincided with one of their reset times. For most people, the Mayan apocalypse was nothing, just as the switch to 2000 had been nothing. But my life was hit by apocalypse in October 2012.

Much of the apocalypse was mechanical and financial. Every vehicle in the household seemed to break down that month, requiring towing and expensive repairs. (Since the household included young adults, you can imagine some of those cars were old, used models, prone to breakdowns.) As we were dealing with that jolt, the family desktop computer stopped working, requiring replacement and including the loss of some documents and programs. As soon as we replaced the computer, we also had to replace the printer. Some other appliance also required repair at that time—the oven, I think, or maybe the refrigerator. It seemed as though everything was falling apart.

My feelings regarding that turmoil became focused on the announcement that a prized and precious coworker was leaving to take a new position at another job; her last day was the tenth of October. We had worked together for the past five years. Her presence had made work more enjoyable, and her assistance improved the quality of my work. We had no romantic attachment, but—given the chaos of the apocalypse—I came to regard her departure as the worst crisis of the month. Every October reminds me of that month. Songs on the radio bring back memories. Songs and stories I have written keep those memories alive. I received with a sense of irony the news that October 10 is World Mental Health Day, given that I entered a breakdown of sorts on that day eight years ago, one which led to counseling, medication, and a new perception of anxiety and depression.

The day the calendar changed this month is the day that history repeated itself, as another coworker announced that she was leaving for another job, choosing October 10 as her last day. We have worked together only two years, and never as closely as in the previous case. Yet she is a coworker I have liked, respected, and admired—a person who probably would be a friend if we had met at church or in some community activity. Common sense and CBT are keeping this change from becoming a crisis, but the coincidence of dates is disconcerting and ironic.

Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall is, primarily, the story of a failed romance. One of its subplots is a portrayal of friendship. Alvy and Rob are so close that they have a nickname for each other—the same nickname; they each call the other “Max.” I have had some Max-like friendships in the past: people whose thoughts and feelings and lives seemed to mesh with mine. A children’s rhyme teaches us to “make new friends, but keep the old: one is silver, and the other gold.” Aside from family, I have not been successful at holding on to the gold, nor have I acquired much silver in recent years. The truth is that I find it easier to confide my Mayan apocalypse experiences to my virtual friends on the Internet than to share them with anyone I see face-to-face on a regular basis.

When the virus crisis began to change our lives this spring, I thought I would achieve much productive writing. Instead, my writing has been mired in other issues. I have finally, this month, completed a first draft of my book about Christian faith and depression; but I know that this book will require more than the usual editing and polishing before I can send it to Kindle to be published. I have other book ideas, largely supported by writing I already have done. The energy to bring those projects to completion is also lacking. Since school days, I have prided myself on completing projects before they were due. Now, some of my most important writing is being done on the last day, with very little progress taking place before it is almost too late.

I knew for a while that I would write a post about John Lennon on his eightieth birthday, October 9. The night before, as I lay in bed, I composed what I wanted to say about the Walrus. In the morning, I got to a computer and typed my tribute. When I posted it, WordPress linked the post to related posts I had written and published before. I clicked on the first linked post, which I wrote two years ago. I was stunned to see that the previous post was all but identical to the newly-crafted post. Not that I would expect myself to have new insights into John Lennon that came to me in the past two years; but it seems like one more symptom of stagnation that a new production would so closely ape the work I did two years ago.

Mental health has many facets: sudden appearances of illness and long declines into illness, exercise of self-control and loss of control to situations or bad choices, being conquerors or being victims, seizing control of life or surrendering control of life. These issues are complex; they raise questions not easily answered. Generally, the one-day-at-a-time approach is best, with confidence that “the sun’ll come out tomorrow.” And the Lord who is control provides help and blessings along the way, when we have eyes to see his grace. We all struggle; we all help each other to get through these times. J.

Life and the Black Dog of depression

In the 1979 movie All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (like the movie’s director and co-writer Bob Fosse) is a successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director who lives life on the edge. He drives himself at work, he drinks and takes drugs, he sleeps around, and he pushes himself to the limit. He both figuratively and literally flirts with death (the literal Death portrayed by Jessica Lange). All That Jazz can be viewed as a brutally analysis of Fosse’s own life, but it also speaks about the choices many other people make in their lives.

What drives people like Joe Gideon to live life on the edge? Often the cause is emptiness within. Stressed by life with its ups and downs, they embrace the downs and overlook the ups. They choose death over life, not suddenly and violently, but gradually, deliberately, and knowingly. The Black Dog of anxiety and depression has more power over them than they have over themselves, and it drives them over the cliffs of despair.

A Christian understands why unbelievers feel this way and act this way. A Christian might wonder why a fellow Christian feels this way and acts this way. Jesus tells us not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). Paul identifies the greatest gifts of the spirit as faith, hope, and love. If a Christian has no hope, one may suppose, that Christian also has no faith.

I know a man—I’ll call him Martin. Like me, Martin has struggled for years with anxiety and depression. Like most people, this spring has been difficult for Martin: fear of the virus, fear of damage to the economy, fear of violence in the streets, fear of what might happen to himself, to his family, to his job, and to his neighborhood. Martin has not turned to all the wrong answers that Joe Gideon tried. Martin has been faithful in his marriage. He has taken no illegal drugs and abused no prescription drugs. Martin does try his best at his job, but he is not driven to work to the point of exhaustion. But Martin does consume alcohol. He calls himself a “heavy drinker.” That mistake recently put Martin in a very uncomfortable position.

Martin was sitting in church next to his wife when the preacher began the sermon. One of the first things the preacher mentioned was the distress felt by family members when one of them drinks too much. Martin wondered whether his wife had been talking to the preacher about his drinking. (She hadn’t.) The preacher went on to speak of other things, including the grace of God and His power to overcome all evils, even those we bring upon himself. Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher began to list the many idols people put in the place of God, and he dwelt particularly on the sins of alcohol and drug abuse.

As the sermon wound to a close, Martin felt as if things were going dark. It was not like entering a tunnel; it was more like on television when the picture fades to black. He heard the Amen to the sermon; he heard the congregation begin to sing the next hymn. The next thing Martin remembers is lying in the aisle of the church with an usher pounding his chest, performing CPR.

Martin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spent the afternoon in the emergency room; then he was in another room for observation for another twenty-four hours. The hospital workers paid closest attention to the working of Martin’s heart. (And, it appears, Martin’s heart is good.) But Martin admitted more than once to the hospital workers that he is a heavy drinker. One of those workers told Martin that he had been admitted with an elevated alcohol content in his blood. In her opinion, he had suffered an alcohol-related seizure. (Other hospital workers said it was not a seizure; aside from blacking out, the symptoms of seizure were absent.)

Martin went home after promising to quit drinking. He was given a drug to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Along with follow-up visits with his family doctor and with a cardiologist, Martin also followed up with his pastor. They discussed the sin of alcohol dependence, and they discussed God’s grace and forgiveness.

Depression is not a sin. Depression is a symptom that something is wrong—whether physical or emotional or physical. No one cure fits all kinds of depression. A great many factors need to be analyzed: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, fear, guilt, and chemical balances in the body. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—bears a strong feeling that life is not worth living. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—feels unneeded, unwanted, and unloved. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—will take risks with his or her life. Some risks are sudden and violent: a gunshot, a self-strangling, a strong poisoning, a deliberate car crash. Other risks are slower and less certain: drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, overeating or undereating (anorexia), and more.

I cannot suggest much advice about how to help a nonbeliever in this situation, Perhaps persuade him or her that family and friends do care, and that he or she is contributing positive energy to them and to the world. Perhaps ask if they want to live to see their daughter’s wedding, meet their grandchildren, watch those grandchildren grow. Many things in life have meaning apart from God’s blessings; but God’s blessings are the greatest reason of all to keep on living.

The Christian is promised a better life in a better world. This promise is not motivation to end this life and start that new life as soon as possible. This promise is motivation to do our best in this lifetime as we prepare for the better life that is coming. “You will not kill”: this applies, not only to the lives of our neighbors, but also to our own lives. We are managers of the bodies God has made. He intends for us to take care of them. Christians who smoke, Christians who drink to excess, Christians who overeat or who starve themselves: these are not false Christians who have lost their faith. These are sinners who need a Savior and who already know their Savior. These our brothers and sisters who need and deserve our love and encouragement. These are part of the family of God, the body of Christ, whose struggles are more visible than the struggles faced by every Christian in this world.

Joe Gideon flirted with death. So did Martin. In a way, so does every sinner, even those sinners who are simultaneously saints. Viruses and terrorists are not the only dangers in this world; sometimes we are dangers to ourselves. But God says, to Martin and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). J.

Experiencing technical difficulties (a rambling update for my online friends)

My WordPress presence has been somewhat limited these last few weeks because of assorted (and unrelated) technical difficulties. At times I wonder whether these difficulties are a Sign that I should curtail WordPress activity and focus more attention on other writing.

(On a related note, I am awaiting shipment of my latest book, much of which appeared on this blog as meditations on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. I gave the book the title Blessed with Perfect Righteousness to emphasize the Gospel themes I identified in these meditations.)

As of the beginning of December, my job required me to spend considerably more time than before as a reference librarian in the research room. The new leadership of the library system decided that the department where I work was costing the library too much money, so our budget was cut, some employees lost their jobs, and the rest of us have to replace the missing workers on the schedule. Since I often spend two hours at the reference desk with no one to help, that seemed to be an opportunity to keep up with WordPress, both writing my posts and reading, liking, and commenting upon other posts. For a while that pattern was working. Then, one day, the computer at the desk stopped downloading WordPress correctly. I can still read posts, but all the interactive functions are kaput. Likewise, I can compose posts and publish them, but I cannot interact with readers through that computer. I don’t know what the problem is: it could be a security filter that IT has added, or it could be a fault within that one computer module. In either case, I hate to report the problem to IT since it does not impact the work I am paid to do for the library.

(Beginning today, the library computer is no longer an issue. To prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the library has closed its doors, locking out patrons and employees alike. We are being paid, just as if the library was temporarily closed for ice and snow. And some employees are still keeping the system functioning, but not in my department.)

Meanwhile, my home desktop computer is nearly eight years old, and it is very slow, especially connecting to the Internet. I can read a post, then might have to wait a minute or two before I can click the Like button. The frustration level with this computer was so high that my son donated his desktop as a replacement. It took a few days for me to transfer files from the old computer to the newer computer, but I finally got the new system up and running. I left the old computer assembled on a nearby piece of furniture in case any family members remembered something else that hasn’t been transferred. But last week the new computer began to malfunction. For some reason, the main computer is not corresponding with the monitor. When that happened on the old computer, I was able to fix the problem by removing the side panel and blowing out the accumulated dust. I did that this weekend with the new computer, and the first time I reconnected it, things started right away. Since then, it has become increasingly balky, to the point that today the computer system is not working at all. I am considering taking the computer to the nearest ubreakifix location to see if they can identify and fix the problem.

(Since I have competed the Sermon on the Mount book, my next project is to be a twelve chapter book, “Witnesses to the Lord’s Passion.” Each chapter will be the account of Christ in the latter half of Holy Week as seen from one point of view: Peter, Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, Barabbas, etc. Years ago I wrote and presented some selections for this book; these I have to find and copy (while editing and improving them), while others I will write from scratch.)

I am doing what I can on this older desktop computer. I am scheduled to teach a college class this spring. Ten students signed up for the class, but only four came to the first session last Tuesday, and only two were there last Thursday. Over the weekend, the school announced that all teaching would be done online, so I have to figure out how to give quizzes and other assignments through the school’s web site. Most teachers do this already, and I have had training sessions for online teaching. But I have always preferred the classroom experience, and it seems that the students who sign up for my classes feel the same.

(Meanwhile, we have had a wet, gray, and gloomy February and March, which is not good for morale. And our family’s fifteen-year-old cat, who was getting more frail, suddenly took a turn for the worse and was essential on hospice care last week. Family members in the area were able to visit her by the end of the week. On Saturday she was taken to the veterinarian, who diagnosed renal failure and recommended euthanasia, which was then done. So yesterday I buried a cat in the growing pet cemetery behind our house.)

My prospects for a new job still seem good, although I have not heard directly from those in charge of a decision. My guess is that they will wait until after Easter before moving to the next step, which would include interviews of prospective workers. That probably means that the position will not be filled until June or July, leaving a few weeks between the retiring worker and the replacement—which probably is healthy for all involved. This delay has not stopped family members from scouting new houses in the neighborhood of the church, while making lists of what has to be done to sell the house we have now.

(And I needed to jumpstart my car after church a week ago, so I stopped by the auto parts store on the way home and bought a new battery, which they installed for me. Plus I’m trying to get my income taxes filed, which has been complicated by these computer problems. Yesterday a lot of churches canceled their services, although I did get to attend the one I had been planning to attend. I’m not sure whether the cancellations will continue for many weeks on Sundays and Wednesdays, or if yesterday was a one-time event.)

So I will try to return to WordPress when I can to continue building my political platform, to comment on current events and on the life of the Church, and to keep up with my friends. God’s blessings to you all: Keep Calm and Stay Healthy. J.

Transfiguration, Mardi Gras, and Lent

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record an event in which Jesus glowed with light. He had gone to the top of a mountain to pray, bringing with him Peter, James, and John. While he was praying, his face began to shine like the sun, and his clothing turned brilliant white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Moses and Elijah joined the four men on the mountain, speaking with Jesus about the rescue mission he was soon to fulfill in Jerusalem. (Note—this is the first time that Moses was permitted to set foot in the Promised Land. This indicates that Jesus, in his rescue mission, was completing the work that Moses had started centuries earlier.) After Peter babbled something about setting up three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the group was surrounded by a cloud—not a natural cloud of water droplets, but the supernatural cloud of God’s glory. From this cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased—Listen to him!” The disciples fell to the ground in terror, but Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid. When they opened their eyes, it was just the four of them again, and Jesus was no longer glowing with light.

In recent times, the custom among traditional churches has been to hear and contemplate the descriptions of this event on the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. (The traditional Christian calendar begins around the start of December with roughly four weeks of Advent. Next come the twelve days of Christmas, followed by the season of Epiphany. During this season, Christians consider the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior. After Epiphany comes the penitential season of Lent, consisting of forty days plus six Sundays. Lent concludes with Holy Week, which ushers in the seven weeks of Easter. After those seven weeks, the Church celebrates the holiday of Pentecost, and then about half a year passes before Advent starts again.) The thought of Jesus glowing with light in the presence of three apostles and two Old Testament heroes seems a fitting conclusion to the thoughts of Epiphany while Christians prepare themselves for the somber observance of Lent.

In the days that fasting was more common in Lent, Christians used up the last of their luxuries—milk, eggs, and the like—on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent. How this sensible consumption of items that would spoil if they were not eaten turned into the modern Bacchanalia of Mardi Gras is not hard to guess, sinful human nature being what it is. My point is not to criticize the excesses of Mardi Gras; that would be too easy. But remembering the Transfiguration of the Lord on the last Sunday of Epiphany is itself, in a way, a Mardi Gras for traditional Christians. During Lent, Christians remember their sins and their need for a Savior; we repent. At the same time, we recall that Jesus is the Savior we need, and so we experience the joy of our salvation even in the gloom of Lent. This last Sunday of the season, remembering Christ’s Transfiguration, wraps up the glory of Epiphany for Christians.

At times Christians have overemphasized Lent and penitence and gloom and sorrow. Currently, the opposite trend seems to be stronger. Many Christians want all their spiritual experiences to be uplifting, exhilarating, and inspiring. They prefer not to talk about sin and repentance. They marginalize the cross, reducing its importance. They want to feel the glory today, to bask in the glow of Jesus, and to make every day a celebration. Like Peter, they want to extend the good times, to make permanent what God intends to be only a passing event in the life of a Christian.

God can provide beautiful times like the Transfiguration where and when he pleases. The useful times in the life of a Christian, though, are not the mountaintop experiences. The useful times are the dark nights of the soul, the times when God seems distant, the times when we believe not because faith is easy but because faith is needed. Those are the times when we grow. Those are the times when the Lord does his best work through us.

Someone has said that anxiety and depression are a normal reaction to the world as it is right now—that anyone who is not anxious and depressed simply is not paying attention. That position is overstated, but it contains a kernel of truth. We see the joy of salvation best when we understand from what evil we have been saved. The celebration of Easter is made greater by the observation of Lent. Or, as Richard Nixon said, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” J.

Happy St. Valentine’s Day

I stopped by Walmart on my way home from teaching last night. I had to chuckle as I walked past the Valentine cards; three white-haired men were inspecting the cards, all standing in front of the “Wife” selections. There’s nothing like last-minute shopping for romantic gestures.

Every Leap Year I read the works of Soren Kierkegaard as part of my daily devotions. I just happen to be halfway through Stages on Life’s Way, which is very appropriate for St. Valentine’s Day. For those unfamiliar with Kierkegaard, he was a theologian in the Danish church (therefore Lutheran), although he never served a congregation. Instead, he published (at his own expense) essays on philosophy, theology, and life in general. Many of his books were written under pseudonyms, which gave Kierkegaard the freedom to pursue lines of thought that were not his own. That’s why it’s risky to quote Kierkegaard—you can never be sure that he meant what he wrote, that he wasn’t setting up a straw man through his pseudonym.

Stages on Life’s Way presents itself as a series of works found in a bookbinder’s shop and published by the bookbinder because he had no idea what had happened to the author. The first work is based on Plato’s Symposium: five men gather for a banquet, and each delivers a speech about love. The second work is a scholarly discussion of love and marriage, attributed to a certain Judge William. The third, “Guilty? Not Guilty?” is a diary supposedly fished out of a Danish lake. The diarist writes in the morning, recalling a love affair/engagement of a year before; then he writes at midnight about his sense of guilt for having broken the engagement. Since Kierkegaard had done exactly that—been engaged and broke the engagement—one might suspect that the diary is somewhat autobiographical. In actuality, the work is an exploration of romance, anxiety, depression, worry, and the like. Great reading for Valentine’s Day!

Kierkegaard is sometimes blamed for the Existentialist movement in modern philosophy. He actually was a defender of traditional Biblical Christianity. Kierkegaard insisted that faith must be subjective, but he didn’t mean that in a post-modern sense of “believe whatever you choose to believe.” Instead, he meant that theological statements must be deeply personal to have any value. A list of proofs for the existence of God is helpful to hardly anyone: the believer already believes without the proofs, and the unbeliever already rejects all the proofs that are presented.

Which brings me back to the white-haired men searching for a preprinted card that will express their love for their wife—and doing so long after the most suitable cards have already been purchased. Wouldn’t a handwritten message be more suitable than a Walmart greeting card? Or have these men run out of ways to say, “I love you”? Flowers and chocolate are nice, but nothing is more endearing than a piece of paper that has been handled and rejected by countless husbands over the past three weeks before it finally leaves the store in the hands of a desperate man a few short hours before midnight on February 13. Or so it struck me last night. J.