January 19, 2015
When you’re right, it’s hard to be humble. When you’re always right, it’s even harder. A plaque my wife put in our kitchen reminds me about this: “When I married Mr. Right… I didn’t know his first name was Always.” (Already I have to confess that I’m not always right. When I shared a draft of this essay with her, my dear wife reminded me that we together saw this plaque in a shop, we both laughed, and I bought it. It is still in the kitchen, though.)
I’ve been trying to learn from Dallas Willard, a brilliant scholar and teacher in both the university and the Church. He was sure-fire smart and had thought about ideas more carefully than most, but the people who knew him best describe him as always humble and always gracious. “It’s hard to be right and not hurt anyone with it,” he’d say. When you’re sure you’re right, you can hurt people in all sorts of ways – belittle them, embarrass them, attack them, ignore them. Or you can give them a look that says, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that people who disagree with you may have something worthwhile to say. But it could happen. So skipping the evil eye, showing respect, and listening patiently might be okay.
Dallas would also say, “I assume that I am wrong about some things, because everyone else I know is wrong about some things, and it would be very unusual.” Not that you’d actually set out to be wrong. Mostly we’re not wrong on purpose, though sometimes we might avoid learning more so we don’t risk having to change our minds or admit that we were mistaken, maybe especially about things that are dear to us. In a Charles Schulz “Peanuts” cartoon, author Snoopy announces the title to his new book on theology, Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong? Sometimes I read books like that, not with that title, but with that spirit. Sometimes they rattle my cage.
A slightly less distinguished theologian, Mark Twain, once remarked, “The thing that gets you in trouble isn’t what you don’t know, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” We might swap stories about how we’ve discovered this in our lives, privately or publicly. As a teacher I know that I’ve passed along wrong ideas and information, all the while trying to learn and grow. This can humble you; you’d like a do-over. And you regret any hurt you have caused. Sometimes I’ve made a huge mistake, kind of a “magnum oopsus,” though I won’t entertain you with accounts of all of these, and I might magnum my oopsus again. I’ve seen folks who too readily defend or get entrenched in their error. I’ve seen others who, even if embarrassed, will share their change of mind. All in all, it makes sense to me to find grace and humility, maybe especially about the things we know for dead certain. Humor helps, too, by creating perspective and reminding us of human frailty.
Of course, most folks are trying to think as straight as they can, even with all the distractions and roadblocks we may face. They aren’t joining those who say, “I’ve learned so much from my mistakes, I’m thinking of making a few more.” But I’ve discovered over time that I know less than I thought I did, that the vast world won’t yield easily to my grasp, and that mystery piles wonder on wonder far beyond my imagination. Maybe it’s part of learning and growing. Maybe it’s age; I keep trying to remember my date of birth and phone number when medical clerks ask. In the end, though, I keep trying to be as right as I can, but I want to learn more of humility and grace. And I’m pretty sure I’m right about that.
November 26, 2014
When I first discovered the project “Old Jews Telling Jokes” I thought it was brilliant. Better yet, it was hilarious and wildly successful, going viral in books, in DVDs, on the internet (www.oldjewstellingjokes.com), and even on Broadway. A few creative folks had hatched a simple idea: video Jews telling funny stories and choose storytellers, men and women, who were at least 60 years old. The joke topics included Jewish mothers, rabbis, food, husbands and wives, illness and doctors, death, and much more. A simple form of a classic goes:
“Oedipus schmedipus, as long as he loves his mother.”
The project laid up a treasure of Jewish folk “telling the same old jokes they’ve been telling for forty years.”
Soon, despite how much I admire good Jewish humor, I began to think they shouldn’t have all the fun. On behalf of my faith community, I thought, “How about ‘Old Quakes Telling Jokes’?” It could happen. Technologically Quakers could do it. Most of us have electricity now and even video cameras; some are so skilled that people actually pay them to make videos. And I know there are old Quakes who can tell great jokes. Sadly, some of the best storytellers are now beyond old, and other terrific ones are still in training to be 60. (Sources tell me that one of our well-known training-wheel storytellers sneaked in to see “Old Jews Telling Jokes” the other night, probably to get some ideas.) But this could happen. Between the funny folks on my list and those that Friends across the country know, we have storytellers galore. Maybe even now someone is ready to set up a little studio and get started.
I suppose we would hear a variety of well-worn Quaker stories that would end with one of two punch lines: (Quaker with hunting rifle, not an Uzi, in hand, speaking to an intruder) “Friend, thee knows I would not harm thee, but thee is standing where I am about to shoot.” Or, to a balky beast, “Thee knows I cannot strike thee, but what thee does not know is that I can sell thee to a Baptist who can beat the tar out of thee.” (The word “tar” here reflects my generally polite upbringing.) Beyond these old stories, though, I’ve heard Friends joke about sensible shoes and about conferences where Quaker dietary preferences wiped out the yogurt supply for counties 50 miles around. Of course, there will be jokes about integrity, simplicity, tortuously long meetings for business, and dearly wanting to beat up warmongers. Occasionally collections of funny Quaker stories appear, such as the recently published one gathered by Chuck Fager, Quakers Are Hilarious!
Of course, I don’t want to hog this idea. It’s just that “Old Quakes…” keeps the punchy title and I know Quakers can be funny on purpose. But others should have a shot at it, too. Maybe you can get the same punch with “Old Sikhs Telling Jokes,” “Old Popes Telling Jokes,” or “Old Lutes…,” though I’m not sure that Lutes is honorable apart from Lutheran college football teams. Or you could break up the energy of the title to include others: “Old Baptists Telling Jokes,” “Old Russian Orthodox…,” “Old Sanctified Brethren…,” “Old Rastafarians…,” or “Old Fire-Breathing Disciples Telling Jokes.”
I don’t know in many instances whether such traditions even have jokes, though I think that any religion worth its salt has to have some humor in order to keep perspective and to tell the truth. Pope Francis raises my hopes by writing an apostolic exhortation (actually, a book) The Joy of the Gospel and by, on at least one occasion, wearing a clown nose as an accessory to his white papal garb. Baptist pastor Susan Sparks has a killer sense of humor and even does stand-up comedy (see Laugh Your Way to Grace). Garrison Keillor of the Sanctified Brethren helps, too. It’s reassuring to know that Quakers, with their high hilarity, won’t have to serve as jesters for the entire Christian community. Jews, clearly, have all the humor they need.
So stay alert. “Old Quakes Telling Jokes” may sprout from this seed. If you’re an old Quaker and funny, volunteer. If you’re not old enough, please stay healthy and send nominations. I think I need to start taking names.
November 4, 2014
Just like comic scenes in horror movies (I’m not an expert on this), the Bible sometimes mixes funny stories into awful storylines. Jamming tragedy and comedy together shows vividly in the stories about Michal (mee-kahl), King Saul’s youngest daughter.
Part of the tragedy is that both Saul and David used Michal for their own purposes. Saul used her to try to kill David. He had progressed from being insulted that David got more credit as a warrior than he did to fearing him, hating him, and eventually to making him a constant enemy. David, on the other hand, used Michal to become a legitimate part of the royal family. Before Samuel had anointed him, David hadn’t much thought about being king, but he quickly warmed to the idea. He pursued it steadily with a dynamic blend of cunning, prowess, and blessing. (He wasn’t entirely ruthless, since he carried some of foreign-woman Ruth’s DNA.) Marrying Michal gave him an edge in becoming king.
Yet in the midst of all this chaos and conflict, Michal loved David. As did her brother Jonathan and everybody in Israel. Except Saul. Seeing that Michal loved David, Saul offered her to David as wife, requiring as a dowry only one hundred Philistine foreskins. David would get killed for sure, he thought, before he collected a bag full of those. But he didn’t, and David took Michal as wife. (For more detail, but without illustration, see my blog post “David’s Daring Dowry.”)
After Saul failed to get his family and servants to kill David, he took direct action, but the daughter he offered as bait thwarts him. (See 1 Samuel 19:8-18 for these stories.) First he sends a surveillance squad to stake out David’s house to keep track of him. Michal knows trouble is brewing and warns David to flee that night. She sneakily lets him down from a window (an underserved biblical theme – see also spies at Jericho, Saul at Damascus, Eutychus at Troas), and David runs for his life. Then she puts a household idol in his bed, tops it with a goat-hair wig, and throws covers over it. Many of us may best remember this age-old trick from the movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” but it’s a perennial one.
The next morning, as Michal predicted, Saul sends a hit squad to murder David. Now here the biblical text is very compact, so we need to use our imaginations a bit to unpack the story, to see faithfully what the author describes.
When the hit squad arrives at David’s house and they ask to see him, Michal greets them and says, “Sorry, he’s sick today. You’ll have to come another time.” So the bewildered assassins leave and return to Saul, willing to put off murdering David until he was feeling better. That’s funny in itself, but imagine what they had to tell Saul: “Umm, he’s sick today so we couldn’t kill him.” Remember that this is the Saul who, when he’s angry, throws spears at people. Might he have said, “I don’t care if he’s sick, I want him dead!”? Among other things, Saul ordered them back to David’s house, “Bring him, bed and all, back so I can kill him!” (The Message)
They hurry back, barge into David’s room, and find only the dummy with the goat-hair wig, but they bring Michal back to Saul. He challenges her, “How could you betray me, play tricks on me, and side with my enemy?!” Michal, ever resourceful, has one more trick, “David threatened me. He said, ‘Help me get away or I’ll kill you!’” She survives this crisis, though Saul gives her as wife to another man.
Michal’s story continues, after Saul’s death, in texts that also blend tragedy and humor, but for now let’s note how trickery, surprise, and reversal can weave humor through ugly stories. And maybe you, with me, will continue to wonder whether the spirited Michal was naïve or ambitious or clever.
October 7, 2014
A recent road trip stirred up my thinking about laws and drivers. Washington state, for example, posts higher speed limits than Oregon, apparently thinking that Washington drivers can handle it. As an Oregon driver, I’m not quite sure that I’m up to it, though my wife, who learned to drive in Washington, never hesitates. When we crossed into Idaho, I noticed even higher speed limits. 80 miles per hour! At first I thought that Idaho drivers must out-class us all, but that turned out not to be obvious. Drivers and machines whizzing by startled me. Especially the tractors. So I wondered how Idaho had set their 80 mph speed imit. Perhaps they took drivers’ average speed, since clearly some drivers viewed 80 as a suggested minimum. But then I thought that these drivers may be in that special group of people, whom I’ve seen elsewhere, who actually are above the law. There’s no published list, but they know who they are. I’m not in that group, though I’m perfectly willing to break the law for conscience’ sake. I know a lot of folks who do break the law, and mostly they’re pretty good people, even the Sunday School teachers. Some do violate the law routinely and even buy radar detector devices to help them speed. Others brag about what they can get away with or about how fast they can get to Bend or Boise. In contrast, I think that people who support civil disobedience should disobey the law only out of conviction, not out of convenience or whim. That’s part of obeying governing authorities, as Paul directs (Romans 13). If law-breaking is your habit, then taking a stand for conscience’ sake won’t be bold or convincing. It just piles on more being a law unto yourself. So, among other mundane practices, observing speed limits seems important to me. Perhaps some readers will find my mentioning it an uncivil obedience. However you take it, though, please don’t startle anyone.
September 26, 2014
“College taps the power of cow manure.” As many colleges were gearing up for a new year, I discovered this headline praising Green Mountain College in Vermont for using electricity from generators powered by methane gas extracted from cow manure. The “cow power program” increased the college’s electrical costs a bit, but provided the “environmental college” a way to model using renewable resources based on the local economy. Students can even observe the energy-generating process at local farms. Apparently this and other sustainability initiatives have effectively reduced the college’s carbon footprint, so visitors can now walk on campus without worrying about stepping in carbon patties.
Such initiatives not only bring immediate practical benefits, but they also help fire up the imaginations and consciences of students who may not have pondered the environment and methane beyond fart-lighting contests in their dorms. “Cow power” can also bring a bit of gender equity to campuses that have for years used only b.s.
Actually, firing up students’ imaginations and consciences is what good colleges and universities do. Of course, they’ll teach students to read and write, to think and solve problems, and to develop other useful skills. But they want students to dream less about how to make a bundle than how to make a difference. They help students explore worlds they’ve never imagined and re-imagine the worlds they already know. They help discover the magic in methane. So cheers for the colleges with Cow Power and for the students they serve.