February 2009

“As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:13,14).

Remember that you fashioned me like clay; and will you turn me to dust again?” (Job 10:9)

It must be hard to be God. So much to remember. Covenants old and new. Assorted promises. Iniquities (or remembering to forget them). Individuals like Nehemiah who every time you turn around was asking God to remember him for this or that. Or the thief on the cross, who wanted our Lord to remember him when Jesus came into the kingdom.


How does God stay so organized? His prayer-mail (p-mail for short) inbox is always full, as Jim Carrey found out during his brief stint as God in Bruce Almighty. Of course, he has legions of angels who do his bidding, so like any good leader God delegates tasks. Maybe there’s an AS2 ( if you recall It’s a Wonderful Life) in charge of remembering the names of stars (cf. Psalm 147:4). Or little Timmy’s guardian spirit whispers the boy’s name in God’s ear when the child prays for Mommy and Daddy and a new puppy and please don’t let them serve pizza and green beans together at school. How about the seraph in charge of a nation who can recite from memory the details of its history or the reference librarian in the heavenly archives who can put a finger on just the right record at a moment’s notice?


But even angels aren’t perfect, so sometimes God must get frustrated with the process and do things for himself, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). And some items he neither needs nor wants help with: memories so precious that he easily recalls them, promises he will never forget, creatures who never escape his notice.


Like the tiny sparrow he keeps his eye on. Or the flowers of the field, which he clothes with such beauty, though they are here today, gone tomorrow. Or you and me, human beings, made from dust and returning to it, fragile and transitory.


Predators, animal and human, see weakness and pounce on it to feed their bellies or their egos. Not God. He knows how we are made, and amazingly, the fact of our vulnerability is the very source of his goodness toward us. God does not take advantage of our vulnerability to destroy us. Instead, he is moved to compassion and forgiveness. He even chooses to put his treasure in jars of clay inscribed with your name and mine. “These fragile bodies of touch and taste,” as the song puts it, are his instruments to do great things! We are sacraments of God, concrete expressions of his grace.


“Remember, you are dust.” We hear those words spoken annually on Ash Wednesday. But even should we forget, God remembers, and because he does, he comes to our aid: to help, to heal, to forgive. Even with all the universe he has to oversee, all the details he must remember to keep everything going, we are never far from the front of his consciousness, never out of sight, out of mind.


God remembers.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham


Song lyrics from “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” by Bruce Cockburn





He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).


“Stop thinking so analog” (Dr. Rodney McKay, character on Stargate Atlantis” TV series).



analog /ánəlog/ “…using physical variables, e.g., voltage, weight or length to represent numbers….”


digital /díjit’l/ “…operating on data represented as a series of…binary digits or in similar discrete form…”



Most TV stations have delayed until June the transition to exclusively digital signals. But in parts of Mississippi, including my area, a number have already switched from analog. These include the local CBS affiliate and all the Mississippi Public Broadcasting channels. Even as this is happening, according to a report I heard last Sunday, about 20,000 Mississippians remain unprepared for the digital shift.


I’ve paid little attention to the transition, since our TVs are connected to cable. And, given that the pictures are sharper, the sound better, and digital saves stations money on electrical bills, it’s a good thing that the switch is being made, whether this week or this summer.


Listening to the story on public radio, I began to reflect on the differences between analog and digital, maybe even as ways of thinking, and where I fit on the continuum between them. Those of us born into a world where digital meant something you did with your fingers or toes and analog was simply the way of things are neither one nor the other.


I’m no Luddite; I think digital technology is great, providing us with lower costs, faster response, and more accurate transmission of signals. Because of it, I can have multiple guitar effects in a single unit for a reasonable price or carry gigabytes of data on a drive that fits on my key ring. A reader who owns the latest generation of Amazon.com’s wireless reading device is able to take an entire library of 1500 books on a trip in the space of 8″ x 5.3″ x 0.36″. Thanks to digital, myriads of college students can strap their MP3 players to their arms and work out at the gym to their favorite tunes without having to carry the bulky and awkward cassette or CD players of an earlier generation.


Still, there’s something to be said for analog. Call me old-fashioned, but I like telling time from a clock or watch with hands instead of reading those glowing numerals on a display. I write my to-do lists on a legal pad instead of entering them in Outlook; I don’t own a BlackBerry, and I want my cell simply to be a phone. I enjoy the feel of a real book in my hand, turning actual pages. Apparently, so even do those with electronic readers; Amazon sells a leather cover for its device. As we heard in Megatrends years ago, the higher the tech, the more we crave touch.


Well, I see from my analog watch that I need to be going now, so I can write with my pencil on my paper legal pad my to-do list for the day:


¦  play acoustic guitar through a digital processor;

¦  tweak settings on my webcam;

¦  enter new numbers in my cell phone;

¦  search online for a word from the Bible….


© 2009 Tom Cheatham


Source for definitions: The Oxford American Dictionary and Language Guide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)

Note: Even as I celebrate the “Miracle on the Hudson” and draw lessons from Capt. Sullenberger’s work, I am aware that a commuter plane crashed last night into a neighborhood near Buffalo, NY, killing all aboard and one person on the ground. My prayers are with those families.


“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).


“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns’” (Isaiah 52:7).


Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger captured the imagination of everyone when he ditched his disabled Airbus airliner in the Hudson, saving the lives of his crew, 150 passengers, and who knows how many other people on the ground who would have perished had his plane crashed into one of the most densely populated areas on Earth. He is a hero, honored by his passengers, his hometown, his family, the President, the Super Bowl, the media, even note-writing strangers from around the globe.


Sullenberger’s interview with Katie Couric on “60 Minutes” last Sunday evening showed us again just what sort of man “Sully” is and why he deserves the label that has been put on him by so many. He provides an example of the kind of work ethic, composure, and humble spirit that are so desperately needed in these days. Contrast his demeanor and approach to his work with the outrageous and cowardly behavior of the CEO of the salmonella peanut company, who hid from authorities, then took the Fifth when questioned. Or the actions of the irresponsible fertility doctor who implanted eight embryos in an equally irresponsible woman who already had six children. (She now expects the public to pay for their support.) Or the schemes of the greedy Wall Street bankers and others who have brought us to the worst financial crisis in our land since the Great Depression.


Listening to “Sully” on TV and the Internet, I was impressed first of all with how confident and professional he is. In order safely to land his airliner in the Hudson, he had to accomplish simultaneously a number of difficult tasks, like keeping the wings exactly level and the nose up and maintaining a certain airspeed, all while remaining calm. He told Couric: “I was sure I could do it” and “I had a job to do.” What if all of us paid such attention to our work, focusing on doing our tasks well and in a “workmanlike manner,” as lawyers say? What sort of nation, churches, businesses, and families would we have?


Second, I was reminded how providence works. Couric said: “There couldn’t have been a better man for the job: a former Air Force fighter pilot who spent nearly 30 years flying commercial aircraft, specialized in accident investigations, and instructed flight crews on how to respond to emergencies in the air.” In the interview, “Sully” observed: “”I think, in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment had been a preparation to handle that particular moment.” Isn’t it true that by virtue of training or personality or influence or whatever other resource is uniquely ours, God puts us in places where we can serve effectively and make a difference, whether it’s saving many lives or simply brightening someone’s day with a smile or a kind word?


Finally, I felt again the urgency of the need for good news in our world. A note to Capt. Sullenberger celebrated how he had brought a “wonderful day” in a “world that seems to be so full of bad news.” CBS’s “The Early Show” pondered whether the “Miracle on the Hudson” was “luck, fate…or grace.” And “Sully” himself, a reluctant and humble hero, summed up well: “Something in this episode has captured people’s imagination; they want good news, they want to feel hopeful again. If I can help in that way, I will.”


Are you listening, all you in the Church, followers of the One who came bringing Good News? Our task, our calling, is not to quibble and argue over words and standards and the maintenance of institutions. It is to bring good news in a world hungry for it; it’s to help people feel hopeful again. That is what “Sully” Sullenberger did in this one extraordinary act of courage, concentration, and competence. And that is our calling every day as our faithful lives demonstrate, and our winsome words proclaim, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.  








© 2009 Tom Cheatham

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases…” (Matthew 6:7).


“Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’….” (Matthew 5:37).


There are three basic styles of clergy collars. One is the slip-in tab collar, commonly seen on Roman Catholic priests. Another is the neckband shirt, featuring a plastic or fabric band that, as the name implies, goes all the way around the neck, rather like a dog collar. This style is often seen on a variety of Protestant clergy, particularly Episcopal priests.


The third sort is the one I prefer, though I have all three kinds. It’s called a “tonsure shirt” (pictured left, below) and has a band (at righttonsurepurplebig23, below) that encircles the neck between an inner and outer layer of fabric, so that the collar peeks out tonsure-collar1about ¼ inch all around, with about 2½ inches of white showing in front. It’s secured by snapping on two little posts on either side of the opening.


When I first got one of these shirts, I went almost mad (or just got mad) trying to put the collar in. I would snap it onto the fasteners, then try to make the rest of the collar fit between the inner and outer layers. I got all twisted up, trying to reach behind my head to push down the uncooperative plastic on both sides. That effort made me incredibly frustrated, and finally I simply didn’t wear them for a time, opting for the other styles.


Finally, somehow, it dawned on me that if I fed the band in first on the right, then secured it, then did the same on the left, I could have that collar in place in no time. Common sense, right? Well, that’s exactly why it took me so long to figure it out. It was too simple. I guess I was too much like Frasier Crane, who on one episode of the sitcom said “Dad, I don’t do simple.”


I should have remembered the famous principle called “Occam’s Razor,” which says that all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is probably the right one. Or more precisely: “when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better” (see source note below).


All of us unnecessarily complicate our lives, don’t we? Like me with my shirts or my overly complex explanations of theology or my wordy Presbyterian liturgies. Others fill their lives with so many activities and things that they can’t keep everything straight, even with today’s sophisticated electronic planning and communication tools (which end up adding even more complication. Why can’t a phone just be a phone?) And we shouldn’t forget about the folks who over-think everything—relationships, plans, decisions of any kind—and talk, talk, talk with little action. The old Mary Chapin Carpenter song has the right attitude instead: “Shut Up and Kiss Me!”


Karl Barth, a great Reformed theologian of the 20th century, was asked what he considered to be the most profound summary of Christian faith ever written. He had published a highly influential commentary on Romans as well as the massive Church Dogmatics, but here is what he said: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”


Now that’s keeping your “razor” honed and sharp.


© 2009 Tom Cheatham