Monday, April 24, 2017

Lessons Learned in Reformed School

Ken's sermon yesterday was based on James chapter 2, the "Faith without works is dead" chapter.  It helped me figure out how my faith had gotten so wrapped around the axle for so many years.

The sermon was reassuring.  James has proven to be a tough book over the centuries.  Martin Luther himself didn't believe it belonged in the Bible -- "an epistle of straw" was his dismissive epithet.  The conundrum is essentially this:  after verse after verse of Paul writing about salvation through faith alone, James comes along and suggests maybe you should doubt your faith if it is unaccompanied by works (obedience to God's law).  Ken's analysis (hope I'm not distorting it) is that we should view works as evidence of faith, not as its prerequisite -- faith leads to works, not the other way around.
That said, it's easy to set up an impossible standard for yourself, based a broader application of James' words than what he specifically intended.  In James' day, rich Christians would show up at church bringing plenty to eat and drink for themselves, but then refuse to share anything with the poor and hungry.  James thought this practice was disgraceful, and said so.  But even faithful Christians have sins they skirmish with on a daily basis -- the better the Christian, so it seems, the more subtle and dangerous the sins that afflict him.  Christ's perfection eludes us, and will keep doing so until He cleans us up for eternity.

The Reformed Presbyterians I hang out with these days have a term they apply to this cleaning-up process:  sanctification.  It's a lifelong process, and it's not always a linear one.  (Paul blames much of it, at least, on the war between the spirit and the flesh -- in so many words, your flesh knows it is doomed to die and would like nothing better than to take your spirit along with it.)
Now, a quick rewind back to my childhood.  I became aware of and convicted of my sins around the age of seven or so, give or take, and was baptized in our independent Baptist church.  I remember the recipe for salvation was simple:  just ask the Lord to come into your heart and save you.  All well and good.

However, I did not understand the concept of sanctification.  Nor do I recall, ever, a single word preached on the subject.  My memory could be faulty on that score, or I may have been too young to grasp it.  But for whatever reason, that important concept managed to slip through the cracks.  Instead, I believed that, as a Christian, I will no longer want to sin.

This led, quite naturally, to decades of self-doubt and inner struggle.  Even as a child, it gnawed at me constantly.  It started with me committing some sin -- I lied, or swore, or stole from my dad's poker winnings.  (Yes, I did that on more than one occasion; Pop was a good poker player.)  Then came remorse for the sin.  Then came the question:  why would you do this if you're a Christian?  Maybe you're not a Christian after all...?  I thought, wow, I must have really messed up that prayer, and maybe I need to pray it again -- this time, with feeling.  But then another thought arrived quickly at its heels:  is my faith so poor that I have to pray for salvation twice?  Won't the Lord be angry at me for doubting Him?

I expected the sanctification process to be instantaneous, and when it wasn't, The result?  As the younger folks would say, total buzzkill.  I went from doubting my salvation to disbelieving it almost completely.  I never doubted the Lord's, but felt like the worst possible Christian, a complete phony.  I still went to church, but it was torturous and not very assuring.  There's a Gershwin song from one of his musicals ("Girl Crazy", I think) that contains the perfect lyrical description of the way I felt about church:  "They're singing songs of love, but not for me."  The scriptures offers us many thing, including messages of hope and peace, but all I ever heard were the condemnations.

I wonder how many others have abandoned the faith altogether just because they couldn't resolve this dissonance?  The only way I could function was to put it out of my mind entirely, and be assured only that, some day, I was probably going to Hell.  I can't be the only person who has ever gone through all that.

Gradually, over the decades since I came face to face with that appalling dilemma, I was brought back.  Who or what brought me back? Well, the short answer is the Lord Himself -- after all, that's an important part of Reformed theology ("irresistable grace").  But in terms of specifics?  I was always intellectually intrigued by Christianity.  I devoured anything written by C.S. Lewis, for example, and loved to read debates between Christians and atheists (we Dises are a verbally contentious lot and love a good argument).  That was a start, at least.  Lewis is a good read for someone who feels moved to embrace Christ but thinks doing would betray his intellectual principles.  However, I had the opposite problem: I was fine with Christian belief intellectually, but had trouble with believing it applied to me.  So something else was needed.

Then, I married a Christian woman.  It really disappointed Debbie when I wanted to skip church on Sunday, so I attended not because I wanted to, but because I felt I should.  This exposed me, of course, to scripture, which is a means of grace.  It will change you, but not if you don't hear it.  I found myself placed, out of  my love for my woman, where I needed to be.

And then, we discovered our present church.  Pastor Wally played a huge role.  He'd look at me, smile, and say, "Cheer up!  You're worse than you think!"  Wally was an excellent teacher, and we took a class he gave for prospective church officers, working through the Westminster Confession -- I used to call it "Reformed School."  Our elders really do try to teach us good theology.  Our church doesn't consist of perfect people proud of our perfection; we're just struggling sinners who have faith in the Lord's promises, and try to help each other with our struggles.


And there is certainly nothing special about me.  That's a good thing.  It means the scriptures aren't singling me out as the only man since the dawn of Creation to whom the Lord's promises don't apply.  They most certainly do.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Merry Christmas 2016!

Merry Christmas 2016!

I don’t even have to check the calendar to know it’s December.  Lots of trombone gigs, for one thing -- we trombone players use a little calendar book to keep track of all our gigs, it’s called “Year at a Glance.”  The Steelers are starting their playoff charge.  And Virginia’s mostly sultry weather is tending now toward an icky, cold drizzle.   The battle lines have begun forming around Lynnhaven Mall, and pretty soon it will be all shock and awe, as the bank cards stab, parry, and thrust toward the weary but disciplined cashiers.  The teenagers are wearing their best winter shorts and T-shirts.  The liquor store is selling box sets of holiday cheer with free festive shot glasses -- visions of pink elephants adorned in Christmas lights dance in our heads.  Church parking lots are making deals on evergreen saplings destined for the living room, and then for the trash heap -- their short lives spent enticing children to smile and cats to knock them over.  Oh, and Rudolf’s nose is scheduled for laser surgery.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Actually, a lot happened beginning just the day after last Christmas.  Debbie and I, along with several cousins and friends, embarked on one of those Viking river cruises in Europe.  This cruise was on the Danube River, starting in Budapest, Hungary and ending in Passau, Germany.  I’d never been to Europe before, and we thought it might be a good idea to visit there while it’s still European.  Our flight was a Delta/KLM flight (KLM is Delta’s Dutch affiliate), and it would have been a wonderful flight, if only our legs were retractable.  Of all nationalities, I have no idea how a Dutch airline can get away with that -- I'm here to tell you, the Dutch are very tall people.  The shortest stewardess was an inch or two taller than me, and I’m 5’10”.  All the stewardesses were pretty and charming, and they got even more charming as they started handing me glasses filled with complimentary Scotch.  Strangely, I soon forgot all about my cramped knees.  We changed planes in Amsterdam, and arrived in Budapest around lunch time the next day due to the time difference.  A tour bus took us to a grand old hotel in the Buda part of Budapest – the sort of hotel where you half-expect to see Peter Lorre’s watery eyes and sinister grin lurking around the corner.  Hungarian food is big on beef and root vegetables, and heavy on the paprika.  Hungarian wine was not bad at all, and may have been the only menu item that wasn’t based on turnips.  Ba-dump!  I’ll be here all week.  Try the turnip popovers.  Budapest’s architecture is a hodge-podge.  Our Hungarian tour guide was a short, solid-looking and serious woman of about fifty who knows her architecture.  She explained that whenever any army wants to invade another country, they always practice on Hungary first.  Let’s see if I remember them all -- in succession, they have been invaded by the Celts, the Romans, the Huns, the Goths, the Magyars, the Mongols, the Turks, the Germans, the Germans again, and the Soviets.  Hungary has been enjoying a rare period of independence since the Iron Curtain rusted away like a Chevy Vega’s motor mounts.  However, each conquering culture left behind a little something to remember them by.  The Soviet Union’s contribution consisted of these immense, square, concrete apartment complexes -- Hell’s dormitories.  They looked like they were designed by the same team that gave us grain elevators and sewage treatment plants, after first running their plans through the DMV for final approval.  The tour guide felt obligated to apologize for them.  “We know they are hideously ugly, but they’re useful as slums.”  I’m paraphrasing.  The national language in Hungary is not Hungarian, but Magyar (she pronounced it “maiee-YARR”).  “We haff many nationalities livink here togedder in Booda Pesssht,” the tour guide said.

I asked, “Are there any Russians still living here?”

She glared at me .  “No!!!”

Next stop was Bratislava, Slovakia.  Slovakia achieved something almost unheard of: peaceful secession.  They broke from their parent country on a handshake, without a shot being fired, probably the only civil war in history that really was civil -- and with the demise of Czechoslovakia, spelling bees the world over lost one of their best tie-breakers.  Slovakia looks like Allentown – hilly, rocky, and quaint.   The biggest difference is that Bratislava has a big white castle, whereas Allentown has a White Castle.  Bratislava claims to be the honey capital of the world, but are in fact the world’s biggest car manufacturing town.  However, all the cars are named Peugeot, Kia, and Volkswagen (VW acquired Skoda in the early 1990s).  The beer was good, cheap too, but they have a nasty habit of leaving all the lights on in their saloons.  It’s like drinking a beer in a school cafeteria.  If you want to make a secret rendezvous, you’d better use the public library.  Then on to Vienna, Austria.  Here is where sarcasm fails me -- Vienna is a stunningly beautiful city, even on a cold, wet day.  Stunning beauty comes with a price, as always:  Debbie and I stopped at a coffee shop and paid the equivalent of $20 for two cups of coffee with cream and a strudel for Debbie.  However, this was Austria, not 7-Eleven, so no Coffee Mate for the Viennese -- they just scooped huge dollops of genuine 100% cow cream straight out of a big tub.  Now that’s what I’m talking about!  We also stopped in Salzburg, where the tour guide explained that not only was Mozart born there, but also Christian Doppler, and just then a European police siren traveled away from us, DARR-DEEE-DAarrr-deeee-darrrrrrrr-deeeeeee, and lowering in pitch.  So this is where Doppler invented that effect.   That huge castle, nestled way, way up in a nearby mountain, looked very realistic, but there was no sky-writing witch to spell out “Surrender Dorothy!”  Did I want to walk up to the castle? asked Debbie.  No thanks.  Last stop was Passau, Germany, where ABC -- another beautiful church -- hosted the world’s fourth largest pipe organ.  Then, twelve more hours of bashed knees and Scotch-tippling on the KLM flying sardine can and we were home.  We highly recommend taking a Viking river cruise, if our trip was representative.  The food was great, the bar was inexpensive (unlike the trip itself), and the service was friendly and professional.  I might have eventually gotten bored being waited on hand and foot by young, smiling and beautiful East European women, but I’d have to give it a few more centuries to know for sure.

Within a couple of days of our return, I went into the hospital for right shoulder surgery.  On our trip, I’d discovered my left shoulder, the one that was not to be operated on, was actually the one that hurt the most.  Too bad -- surgeons don’t like it when you call an audible at the line of scrimmage.  The right shoulder actually feels pretty good now, after almost a year of healing and therapy.  Not anxious to have that process repeated on my left shoulder, I asked the surgeon, what are my alternatives?  He gave me a cortisone shot.  It made me want to kiss the hem of his coat.  I’m used to old cars needing repairs, but now I’m the one who’s going in and out of the shop, and the warranty has run out.

Debbie’s dad, Bill Wallace, passed away last year, and we hosted his memorial service here in Virginia Beach; the Wallace clan gathered here to honor Bill’s life.  Debbie and I met up with her older brother Bill Jr. at the Pensacola Naval Air Station last June, where Bill’s ashes were interred -- a Blue Angel pilot gave us a fly-over.  Then we drove down to Pine Island, FL, to visit our friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher.  Kurt and Patty took us out fishing on their boat, and we saw a manatee.  They’re huge.  But none of the “Visit Florida!” ads I’ve ever seen showed any photos of manatees doing what huge vegetation-munching animals do for about 24/7 -- they’re not called “sea cows” for nothing.  And that’s no manatee.  Hope is not the only the thing that floats.  We saw Kurt’s dad, Merle, who was like a second father to me, growing up – as it turned out, it was to be our last visit with him.  His last words to me, delivered with a grin, were, “Give ‘em hell, Tiger!”  I always have.  We attended a memorial service both for him and his wife Irene in Altoona, PA a couple of months ago.

As I write this, we’re coming into peak music season.  I have four performances of “The Nutcracker” with the Ballet Virginia International (one down, three to go).  I love Tchaikovsky, and Tchaikovsky loves bass trombone.  Then there’s the Handel Messiah, and that about wraps things up.  Debbie has conducted her final school orchestra concert for the season, and is busy preparing our church music schedule.  Sitting here listening to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, and acknowledging the Lord’s many blessings.  We wish you a merry Christmas and great things to come in the new year ahead.

Merry Christmas 2015!

Merry Christmas 2015!

Another unseasonably-warm December.  Unlike Pearl Harbor 1941, there’s not a nip in the air here.  Temps in the sixties and seventies.  If we ever leave Virginia, here’s hoping it’ll be further south, and may all our Christmases be adobe tan.  I’ve never had to shovel sunlight.

I’ve decided that, if I my employer doesn’t sell me off to a band of Gypsies for a stick of chewing gum before July, 2021, that’s when I’d like to retire.  That day is bound to arrive on schedule, of course -- it’s on the calendar, after all -- but it’s a matter of speculation whether I’ll be here to enjoy it, or to enjoy it while I’m here.  Still, it’s fun to fantasize about it.  What will we do when we retire?  I’ve wondered about maybe… I dunno… a third career?  Writing books or articles?  Find more trombone sections to annoy?  That’s the ‘what’, but how about the ‘where’?  One could do worse than right here in Virginia Beach, but the traffic is wearisome.  Fortunately, there are plenty of bucolic little towns right here in eastern Virginia.  Oklahoma, of all places, is immortalized in song -- "Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain” -- so why not Tidewater Virginia?  “Where the swamp comes seeping through the drain”?  “Where the skeeters tap your jugular vein?”  The tune is catchy, but the lyrics need work.

So this year Debbie and I have taken little weekend drives through our great commonwealth, trying to get a flavor of the place, should we decide to stay somewhat local.  Generally, you can get a lot of bang for your real-estate buck once you leave Virginia Beach.  Smithfield is quaint -- founded in 1648, it’s one of our oldest towns, built around a small creek known as the Pagan River (makes you think there’s got to be a Heathen Mountain or a Lake Infidel somewhere nearby).   My family lived there until I was three; I even remember attending the old Methodist church -- or perhaps more accurately, getting stashed in the nursery. I even remember the time I escaped and went crawling through the congregation looking for my parents.   (“When the big hand hits twelve, we’re making a break for it, boys!”)  Cross the York River and you’re in Gloucester County -- that's where the British soldiers settled who were defeated by George Washington.  They still speak a kind of oddball English dialect known by the locals here as “Guinea” -- as someone of Tangier Island heritage, I can relate.  Then there’s Mathews County, which is where you go once you have completely renounced civilization.  We joke about backwater towns being “out in the Styx”, but Mathews County is so Stygian, all the hound dogs chained to the old Chevys up on blocks in the front yards have three heads.  But all things considered, we’d prefer a town where doing laundry doesn’t require taking it to the river and beating it with a stick.

Retiring elsewhere is still an option.  We visited our friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher this past spring; they gave up the scenic blizzards and alluring tornados of Indiana to brave the warm weather and octogenarian bumper-car traffic of Florida’s Gulf coast -- the locals refer to white-haired drivers as ‘Q-tips’.  I like Florida.  Lizards on your porch.  $2 soft crabs.  Bars with refrigerated ice strips for resting your beer on.  Floridians love their booze -- the barmaid described the local Total Wine shop as “Disneyland for alcoholics”.   Kurt and Patty live on Pine Island, a barrier island adjacent to the Cape Coral, and have a bald eagle’s nest in one of their palm trees.  There’s an old-school charm to the Gulf coast that’s missing from Florida’s Atlantic side.  You half-expect to see Ernest Hemingway pecking on an old manual typewriter, surrounded by cats and empty whiskey bottles.  Debbie and I attended the memorial service for Kurt’s mom, Irene, who was like a second mom to me when I was in high school.  Kurt’s dad, Merle. still looks great at 91 -- he’s a retired Air Force colonel and was a big influence on my choice of the Air Force as the place to serve.

We also visited our friends Sam and Aileen Collins, who live in a little community outside of Tyler, Texas named Hide-a-Way -- and that’s just what it is.  In Hide-a-Way, you can buy an elegant brick rancher, on a golf course, in a gated community, for about $225 grand.  I’d expected East Texas to look flat and dry, with cactuses and dry gulches -- like in the cowboy movies.  But in fact, East Texas looks a lot like Virginia, most of which is slightly hilly and lush with vegetation.  Sam and Aileen were wonderful hosts.  On July 4th, they took us to an Independence Day celebration at an enormous mega-church in Tyler.  I’ve seen big churches before, but this church -- named, I'm not kidding, Green Acres Baptist Church -- took it to a whole new level.  Perched on the third balcony, the air was thin and the pulpit but a distant apparition obscured just a bit by the cirrus clouds drifting below us in the second balcony.  The choir was about five times the size of our church’s entire congregation.  As the patriotic music played, dozens of American cultural icons paraded before us -- Snow White and her dwarfish coterie, Superman and Captain America, circus clowns, baton twirlers…  I joked to Debbie, “Where’s the Uncle Sam guy on stilts?”  She just pointed and said, “There!”  And there he was.  Not quite all American icons were on display -- no fat, bearded guys on Harleys, fedora-wearing gangsters, or Playboy centerfolds -- but this was a church, not a reality series.  Debbie and I learned we love gospel music after hearing a male gospel quartet singing in really tight harmonies.  East Texas seems like the America of fifty years ago, still very faith-oriented and Christ-friendly.  As far as we’re concerned, Green Acres is the place to be.

I enjoyed my strength-training regimen this year -- the best part was finally being able to open ketchup bottles without Debbie’s help.  Unfortunately, last June, I started experiencing shoulder pain.  At first, I thought it was tendonitis and tried fixing it by visiting a physical “terrorist”.  But that bombed.  Finally, one MRI and a head-shaking orthopedic surgeon later, I received sad tidings of great Oy! -- a shoulder operation is scheduled for January 6.  That’s what I get for trying to build my muscles -- you can’t tear a muscle you don’t have.   That’s my theory.

This year has been a more somber than most; we’ve lost a cherished loved one.  Debbie’s father, William Baxter Wallace, spent this past year in a nursing home.  He broke his hip in Jan 2014, and never really recovered -- "failure to thrive” is what the doctors wrote.   He had a number of good days -- flirting with the nurses and actually doing some filing work for them on occasion.  But it soon became apparent he wasn’t getting better and probably wasn’t going to.  The sad day happened on Oct 21.  Bill was a good man, very perceptive, kind-hearted and helpful.  Things I’ll always remember about Bill?  The first time we met, at an Air Force band concert while Debbie and I were on tour in California, I thought he looked like Burl Ives.  Whenever he visited, he did all the carpentry work we needed done, recognizing how hopeless I am with tools.  Bill was a guide at the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum -- a Navy pilot at the tail end of World War II, Bill knew everything there was to know about naval flight.    He had an engineer’s mind and a gentle heart.  And now he is with the Lord.  We miss him.

Debbie just turned “sweet sixty” and the Grinch gave her a European vacation.  We’re heading off shortly to take a Danube River cruise around Hungary and Austria -- it will be my first trip to Europe (Debbie’s been to Switzerland).  May the Lord bless you this Christmas season!