Who Writes Your Obituary?

Some time ago, some of my co-workers (who shall not be named) were reading an obituary.  We all knew a bit about the fellow who had died, and the sad fact is that we didn’t like him.   To engage in some understatement, our dealings with him had gone very badly, we were far from alone in that experience, and in fact his misdeeds had been reported in other sections of the paper.

The obituary naturally said nothing about this.  It focused on the fellow’s good deeds, his religious affiliation and activities, his football fandom (for some people this is the same as religious affiliation), his being a good father and a loving husband, and all the nice things one expects to find in an obituary.  So co-worker A reads this and says, “How can they say this about him!!!”  And co-worker B, who had worked for this person, agreed.

“Um, ladies, you do remember that obituaries are written by the FAMILIES of the deceased, right?  You expect them to say nice things about him,”  I said.  They were not convinced, and I was not very convincing.  “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” was not on any our minds, and a few of us might have wanted to insert a few extra lines into that obituary.  Those lines would have been true and may have added some spice to a usually rather sober section of the paper.

We will all get in the newspaper one last time, usually on the left side of the front page, with a small article somewhere inside.  We hope someone will find something nice to say about us, and it will be even better if it is true.

But it is even more important who writes our eternal obituary.  If someone wrote your WHOLE story, there would be whole pages and chapters you would not be proud of.  It could look like something put out by “The National Enquirer”, only it would all be true.

Being a Christian means many things, but very importantly, it means that God has adopted you as His child and that Jesus is your older brother.  One consequence of that relationship is that Jesus gets to write your obituary.  That means that He takes the bad stuff out, not because He is ignorant or dishonest, but because he took care of all that.  To understand this, look at Hebrews 11.

For the atheist, Hebrews 11 doesn’t make sense.  Look at all those Old Testament characters getting a nice write-up.  Don’t you know that Noah (the guy in the book, not the character in the movie that strangely has the same name) got drunk and naked in his tent?  And Abraham, remember that story he told about his wife, and what he did with his concubine?  And Sarah laughed at God.  And Samson, what a piece of work.  And David, well, you know that story.  How can the Bible be true with a chapter like this, that only tells the good parts of these people’s stories?  Doesn’t this author remember what happened in the Old Testament?!!

Actually, the author, who is inspired by the Holy Spirit,  knows exactly what he is doing.  The Old Testament looks at these saints’ lives in real time, and that is important.  But in Hebrews, he is looking at their lives from this side of the Cross and the empty tomb.  Since Jesus has paid the price for their sins, and those sins are completely forgiven, the author of Hebrews does not feel the need to bring them up again.







What I Learned From The Sacketts

I just finished the first four (in chronological order, at least) of Louis L’Amour’s Sackett novels:  Sackett’s Land, To the Far Blue Mountains, The Warrior’s Path, and Jubal Sackett.  These novels are frontier stories, but they are not exactly Westerns.  They tell the story of the Sackett family, starting with Barnabas Sackett’s escape from England in 1600 to found a non-sanctioned settlement in the New World, and ending with the exploits of his sons.

I wish I had discovered Louis L’Amour as a teenager.  The books are not great literature, but they are fun, and I used to devour historical fiction.  History is way too much fun to be left to history teachers. Besides, if you get your history in the form of stories, not textbooks, you can learn some interesting stuff they didn’t teach you when you were sleeping through history in high school.  Like this:

1.  If you take United States History in high school, you will learn about the “official” settlements, like Jamestown and the Plymouth Plantation.  There were also plenty of unofficial settlements and individual explorers also.  These settlements left odd signs in various places, such as Roman coins in the middle of nowhere.

2.  It is a serious oversimplification to speak of “Indians.” (Or Native Americans now.)  There were multiple nations, with alliances and enmities.  If a settler was allied with one tribe, then he became the enemy of other tribes.  Just like if you were allied with England in the 1600′s, you were probably opposed to Spain.

3.  A good woman will go with you anywhere.  A great woman will go with you anywhere, skin your buffalo, and reload your musket for you, while confounding your enemies in subtle ways.

4.  The reason we don’t really learn foreign languages in high school is that we don’t have to.  If you are put in a wilderness with Indians of various tribes, not to mention Spaniards and Frenchmen, you will learn enough of these languages to get by, even if your grammar and vocabulary are not complete.

5.  Indian oral history and natural history are at odds.  A few tribes believed that Woolly Mammoths, though rare, were around at the time of this story.

6. When dueling, it is often a good idea to let your enemy think that you are an idiot, and that he is greatest dueler in the world.

7.  The story isn’t over until the good guy gets the girl, and the bad guy is dead.  This may seem like a trite way to end a story, but when you think about it, that is kind of the way history ends.

I Predict 2014 (And Publish Some Resolutions)

I seem to be better at making predictions than at keeping resolutions.  Especially when I don’t tell people what I predicted, so I don’t get to say “I told you so.”  So, perhaps it is best that I put some resolutions in the form of predictions, and bury them in the middle of some real, and perhaps not so real, predictions.  So here goes:

1.  I will put a certain amount of money in an envelope each month.  I will use it to buy the various things I need for home improvement projects that I need to do.  In the envelope, I will keep a list of what I did (sort of a reverse honey-do list), to encourage me to continue getting it done.

2.  Justin Bieber has announced his retirement.  This will be short lived, but he will use his time off to grow a beard like ZZ Top.  At least until he realizes that there won’t be an opening at Duck Dynasty after all.  Then he will shave, whether he needs to or not.

3.  It has been determined that the passive voice will be used less often by me.  And I will cut down on the passive-aggressive voice even more.

4.  Sometime this year, Joe Biden will realize that there is a way of becoming president that does not involve beating Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary.  It is a way that does not even involve beating a Republican and it does not require the cunning of a Borgia or a Lady MacBeth to pull it off.  What he does with this knowledge depends on how badly ObamaCare continues to stink, and whether it induces panic attacks in Democrat senators.

5.  I will write more. A lot more.  My goal is to write 50 blog posts this year, though some may be to my blog on chess.com instead of here.  I might even get the pictures on this blog updated to the current decade.  My oldest son would appreciate that, since his picture will not remind him of his little brother.  The obstacles to achieving this goal are distraction and perfectionism.  And Facebook.  Facebook encourages writing too quickly.

6. Any book with a title like “Management Secrets of Willie Robertson” that is published as non-fiction, will outsell any book with a title like “Management Secrets of Barack Obama,” unless the latter is written by P.J. O’Rourke or Dave Barry.  And it will be infinitely more useful.

7.  Last year, I successfully lost some weight, and I gained some strength from working out.  And my back feels better.  This year, I will lose as much weight as I did last year, and I will compete in a few 5K races, where I will do better than I did last year.  (It will help if the races don’t occur during heat waves.)

There is other stuff, but if I told you, the NSA would find out about it.

Al the Atheist’s Awful Advent

“Another Guinness, and do NOT put the shamrock on the head,” Al shouted at the bartender.  ”It reminds me of the blasted Trinity. “  My friend Al the atheist was clearly upset, and by the third Guinness his tongue had loosened.  “It’s my son,” he complained.

I leaned in sympathetically.  “What is wrong? Drugs, crime, school problems?”

“No, a girl,” he sighed.  “You try to raise them right, then some girl just comes along and messes up their head completely.”

 I was surprised.  I knew Carl and he seemed to have his head on straight.  I had even seen him in church on Sunday, which surprised me, and would have upset his father.  Then I remembered that we had a pot luck dinner that week, and Carl’s mother had just taken up vegan cooking.  But his girlfriend seemed like someone Al would approve of.  “Maddy seems alright.  Is there trouble?”

“Oh, Madeline is fine, but she is a bit upset.  It’s a different girl.”

 “Oh, to be young, and to feel love’s keen sting,” I thought, but wisely did not quote Dumbledore.  “ A veritable Delilah,” I thought, and bit my tongue again.  “What is happening?” I asked, more seriously.

“It’s Mary,” he said.

“Mary who?”

“You know, Mary.  THAT Mary,”  he snorted.  “The one I don’t believe in.”

“Al, she’s been dead over 1900 years.  What can she do to your son?  You need to stop drinking now.”

“Well, Carl told me that was minding his business, making fun of the Virgin Birth at the expense of his Christian classmates, and this girl Hannah jumps in.  And she says to him, “Carl, you have read the story, right? “

 “Yeah, my dad keeps a Bible on his fiction shelf. “

 “And you think Mary was a bad girl, who lied her way out of trouble, right?”

“ Of course.  You don’t really believe HER version of the story, do you?”

“But Mary was a smart girl, right?  I mean, she convinced her man, got married, and all that.  And her son even became a little bit famous.  Most people think highly of her now.  Except for atheists like you.”


“But if she was so smart, she could have saved herself a lot of trouble.”


 “Of course.  Let’s say she got knocked up, persuaded Joseph of this crazy story, and then her kid turns out like Jesus.  And then Jesus’ friends start writing stuff about him, including the story of his conception.  Don’t you think she would just leave out the potentially embarrassing parts of the story?”

 “Yeah, that is what my  Aunt Ruth did.  No one does the math between her wedding and the birth of my cousin.”

 “Right, and that’s if she even had the baby.  What do people do with inconvenient pregnancies now?”

“That’s true, but they couldn’t do that back then.”

“ I disagree.  4 centuries earlier, the Hippocratic Oath forbade a doctor from ending a pregnancy.  You can’t forbid an act that didn’t exist.”

 “Oh, I see your point.”

“So if Mary was a bad girl, she could easily have made herself look better.  She could have not had the baby, or she could have disappeared to the countryside for a while, and she could have made sure any references to the curious parts of her family history were not written down.  But because she was telling the truth, she exposed herself to ridicule from atheists like you for all eternity. Not to mention her disapproving aunts, uncles, neighbors, and don’t forget Herod.  And her boyfriend was not understanding at first either.  What teenage girl wants to go through THAT drama with her boyfriend?”

“You got me there.”

Al ended his story, and stared at his beer.  “Carl just hasn’t been the same since then.  I heard him playing “Mary Do you Know’ on his guitar.  And last Sunday, the brat hitched a ride to church with Hannah.”

I tried to encourage him.  “I noticed that, but I thought nothing of it. We had a pot luck last week,  and  I just thought that Hannah was rescuing your son from Rose’s vegan cooking.  He is a growing boy, and she is compassionate that way.  But now that you mention it, he was singing ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel ‘ like he meant it.”

Al looked defeated.  ”I think I have a teenage rebellion on my hands.”


Why Americans Can’t Win in Syria (And Shouldn’t Try)

About 18 months ago, I happened upon about 25 protesters outside of Congressman Mike Kelly’s office.  They were protesting possible military action in Iran.  Strangely enough, there was no serious consideration of military action against Iran at the time, and Mike Kelly didn’t really have much to say about the imagined action against Iran.  But the Congressman’s office is strategically located, and it was a pretty nice day by the standards of Erie, PA, in February, so there they were, protesting away merrily.  I spoke to a few of them and concluded that a) they were all pretty clueless b) having a protest like this was kind of like a substitute for church for some of them.  I wrote about my experience with the protesters here.  I guess that makes me an internet journalist.

Now the President has proposed an actual military action against Syria, with real bombs and missiles, and I am wondering where the protesters are when we really need them.  I even posted on the Erie Peace and Justice Center’s Facebook page to ask if a protest has been scheduled.  (If it has, they should know when and where it is.)  Because I might just make a sign and join this protest.  They wouldn’t know what do with me at a protest, and I might look a bit square in that crowd.  My protest songs would be different from theirs, too.  But it could be an interesting moment of political ecumenism.

My problem with this proposed war is that, the way it is being sold to us, we can’t win it.  (Incidentally, that is one of the several criteria for a just war, according to Augustine.  You have to enter into the war with some chance of success, however that is defined.)  I don’t mean that our soldiers won’t be able to go over there and kick some butt for a while.  They are very good at that.  I mean that, in the long term, because we are Americans, and because of the way the war has been sold, that no good will come of us getting involved.  Here is my reasoning.

1.  The actions Obama is proposing are not sufficient to meet his goals.

The president has said that we can’t allow the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and so Bashir al-Assad must be punished with bombs and missiles.  However, he says that we are not attempting “regime change” in Syria, and we will not send troops into Syria.

If our goal is to keep Assad from using chemical weapons, then it seems that we have two choices.  We can remove Assad from power, or we can remove the chemical weapons from him.  Obama already said that he is not pursuing regime change, so we have eliminated the first option.  That means that he is counting on destroying Assad’s chemical warfare capabilities with bombs and missiles.  And he is counting on doing that after giving up the element of surprise, so the weapons could not be hidden.  This is not realistic, so this strategy will fail.

If our goal is to punish Assad, it seems that we have two choices:  We can take away his power (thus supporting the rebels), or we can endanger his life.  We don’t punish him by just bombing his country, because he doesn’t really care if we kill some of his people.  So a limited bombing strategy will not achieve the goal of punishing Bashir al-Assad

2.  Because these actions are not sufficient to meet our goals, the war WILL escalate, and we will find ourselves choosing the side of the rebels.

Once we start bombing Syria, we can’t expect Assad to just turn over his weapons.  First of all, he can’t take the humiliation, and secondly, even if he says he got rid of his weapons, we could never trust him.  As we continue to bomb him, that will of course weaken him militarily.

Therefore, because the initial strategy failed, we will drift into a strategy of regime change by supporting the rebels.  This will be a violation of Obama’s initial stated goals, but very few people will notice.

3.  Once we choose sides in this war, we will find that there were no good choices.

Bashir Al-Assad is a brutal dictator, so replacing him might not sound like a bad idea.  In fact, some of our Senators want to help get rid of him.

Some of the rebels are decent people who just want to get rid of Assad, but many of them are heavily influenced by al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.  If they get into power, we can expect more persecution of minorities within Syria, and more threats toward Israel.  This is what we got in Egypt, once the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by the protesters, which led to the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood.

4.  Once we find out that there were no good choices, we will probably try to solve the problem with American-style meddling.

This will mean that we may try to work with the new government to try to make them into nice people.  They aren’t nice people, so we will fail, but not until we have “helped” them enough that we bear some responsibility for their failure.

This failure could take the form of moving our soldiers into Syria to “help” the transitional government, as they write a new constitution that ensures the primacy of Sunni Islam over the Kurds, Christians, Druze, and Alawites.  That would mirror what we did in Afghanistan.  Or we could just stand aside and ineffectively complain as the new government reflects the values of the Muslim Brotherhood, like we did in Egypt.

The last decade should have taught us that we can’t make Muslims act like Methodists.  That is a job for missionaries, not soldiers.

5.  The new government will be required to hate us.  But if Assad holds out, he will hate us more.  Therefore, if we lose, we lose, but if we win, we also lose.

If we help the rebels win, the first thing that they will have to do is hate us.  The leadership will feel the need to prove that they are not American puppets.  Most likely, they will feel the need to rail against the Great Satan (us), and they will probably engage in saber-rattling with Israel, AKA The Little Satan.  (If they capture the poison gas stockpiles, it could get worse than saber-rattling.)

6.  Ironically, the best thing to do is…. nothing.

This is not the Cold War, and we don’t have to pick the side that is opposing the side supported by Russia.  Really.  Anyone younger than Senator McCain should be able to figure this out.

We don’t need to get our soldiers shot at, in order to support one set of nasty people over another set of nasty people.  The war over there is not worth a drop of American soldiers’ blood, as long as they keep it within their borders.

If we let the Syrians fight it out themselves, then we will not pick the loser, or get stuck with a winner who is just as bad as the loser.

If we don’t take sides, the winners won’t feel the need to distance themselves from us.  And the responsibility for the results of the war will be theirs, not ours.

If we don’t take sides, we might even be able to help them make peace if they get tired of killing each other.

So, I hope that this latest outbreak of war fever can be contained, and that we can learn the lessons of the last decade.  And if anyone in Erie is planning a good anti-war protest, at a time and place that does not conflict with my work, I just might attend.

The Preacher and the Parrot

A young minister befriended an old man at the Soldiers and Sailors’ home.  The man had been a pirate in his younger days.  One day, the old man said, “Matey, I’m a makin’ my way to Davey Jones’ locker soon, and I need to ask you a favor.”  The preacher agreed to help if he could.

“Me old parrot needs a home when I die.  Could you make him yours for me?” The pastor agreed, but the old man gave him a warning.

“My parrot, he speaks like a pirate. I hope he don’t cause you no trouble.”  The preacher assured the old pirate that he could handle it, and the old man was much relieved.

Shortly afterwards, the preacher began to regret his decision.  When the Stewardship Committee came to visit, the parrot said, “Give me your booty, or I’ll have your guts for garters.”  While giving increased shortly afterward, the members of the committee never looked at him the same.

When the Ladies Aid Society came for a meeting, the parrot said, “Blow me down, matey!!!  Behold ye beauties on deck.”  The meeting went rather awkwardly.

The preacher soon noticed that people were giving him funny looks, and he was worried that his ministry was in danger, but he knew he had to keep his promise to the old pirate.  He tried everything to teach the parrot better manners.  He preached to the parrot, he sang to the parrot, and he catechized the parrot, but nothing worked.

The last straw came just before Thanksgiving, when he was speaking with a prospective member at his house.  As they were discussing the new member’s upcoming baptism, the parrot let loose with a barrage of piratey language that I can’t even type here, and ended by saying, “Walk the plank, go to Davey Jones’ locker!”  The embarrassed preacher took the parrot out the room, removed him from his cage, and threw him in the freezer.  Then he returned to talk to his guest.

An hour later, the preacher remembered the parrot.  “Oh my, what have I done?” he thought as he retrieved the half frozen bird and attempted to revive him.  He went to bed that night worried that the creature would be dead in the morning.

But the next morning, the parrot had recovered and greeted him politely.  “I heartily repent of my fowl language,” he squawked, “and resolve humbly, in reliance on the grace of God, to put my sins behind me.”

The preacher was astonished at the change.  “I am sorry for my anger, dear old bird, and I ask your forgiveness.  But what has caused you to change?”

“I saw what you did to the turkey.”

A Semi-Literate Engineer Comments on Beowulf

My freshman English teacher tried to introduce me to Beowulf, but as I was an engineering student, the translation was old and stiff, and the teacher (who shortly afterwards transferred to the Computer Science department) was perhaps too feminist to appreciate 6th-century Geatish gender roles, the introduction did not go so well.  However, I picked up the Penguin Classics version of Beowulf (translated by Michael Alexander) and finally read the whole thing.  This translation is fairly easy to read, and since I didn’t have to read it and write a paper about it, I could enjoy it more.  It probably also helps that I am not 17 anymore.

So here are some observations, from the point of view of a semi-literate engineer (spoiler alert):

The story was put in writing by early medieval Christians, and it was about their pre-Christian ancestors from a few hundred years before.  (Some events in the story relate to real events of the 6th century.) They wanted to honor their ancestors, while not honoring the paganism of their ancestors.  So they portrayed their ancestors as knowing about God as portrayed in the Old Testament, but without knowledge of Jesus.  Historically, this was not accurate: they were rank polytheistic pagans, and they did things their descendants would not care to mention.  They had a reason for fictionalizing the culture and behavior of their ancestors.  At the very least, the culture they portrayed had to be worth fighting for, or Beowulf could not have been a worthy hero.

Much of the story takes place in the mead-halls.  That is where Grendel and Grendel’s mother do their murders, and that is where promises are made and stories are told.  If I get rich and powerful I want a mead-hall.  (Hold the monsters, please.)  The Mrs. does not approve, and the blonde daughters, who have more than a trace of Viking blood, don’t like the idea either, since that will involve them in the making and serving of mead.  Mead, like rum, if consumed in excess can turn even the most respectable of men into complete scoundrels.

The story is an interesting mix of history and legend.  The tribes really existed, the places in the story really existed, and some of the events described as history really happened.  But then there are two monsters and a dragon, woven skillfully into the story, not patched on like a bad mending job.  The storyteller had a reason for these monsters, and they are not entirely fictional.

Grendel is a descendant of Cain, who was the first fratricide.  The author makes absolutely sure that you understand that.  The stories in the mead-hall include tales of betrayal, and even a prediction that a marriage would fail to bring peace.  (That is, brothers-in-law would be at war with each other.) Beowulf killed Grendel, and he boasted at the end of his life that he had protected his kinsmen.

Grendel’s mother is the second monster, and she comes to the mead-hall seeking revenge.  An ordinary sword does no good against her, and she must be slain with a giant’s sword.  The stories in the mead-hall also include tales of revenge, as the warring tribes continually bear grudges and do battle with each other.  Beowulf is almost alone among the leaders in that he focuses his energies against the monsters, and not against men.

The dragon lived around the Geats, but it seems that he only became active when the slave took a cup from his lair.  Stealing a dragon’s stuff is like stirring up a hornet’s nest.  Bilbo Baggins could tell you about that.  Dragons are notoriously greedy.  In fact, if the Occupy Wall Street crowd studied dragons, they would conclude, erroneously, that dragons are in the .0001%, like the Gordon Gekkos of the mythical-reptilian world.  But really, there is a bit of dragon in all of us, and treasure-lust was another subject of the stories in the mead-hall.  Beowulf kills the dragon only with the help of his kinsman, and in that battle he receives his mortal wound.

The story ends pessimistically, as the people realize that they would be in grave danger without Beowulf’s help.  This is strange for 3 reasons.  1)  The Geats seem to have still existed a few centuries later when Beowulf was put in writing.  2)  Most stories have happier endings.  The gloom and doom at the end is especially unusual since doesn’t seem to be backed up by history.  3) After Beowulf’s death, the surviving Geats are not afraid of monsters, but of the monstrous things men will do to them.

Beowulf is described as the best of all the world’s kings:

“they said that he was of all the world’s kings, the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.”

Though he had many virtues,  he would not be good enough to save them in the end.  And yet they survive.  It almost seems like there is a sequel beyond the end of the story, and the pessimistic ending is not the real end.