January 2010


Today I felt somewhat like Arthur Dent.

You may know that character from Douglas Adams’ zany sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur awakens one morning to find his home is about to be demolished to make way for a bypass. When he complains that he didn’t know, the bureaucrat in charge of the wrecking crew responds that the plans have been on display at the planning office for nine months. Of course, “on display” actually means hidden away in a basement. Arthur, apparently, never got the memo.

When it turns out that Arthur’s home in a larger sense—planet Earth—is about to be disintegrated by aliens to make way for a hyperspace bypass, and he again says he didn’t know, the extraterrestrial bureaucrats give a similar answer about plans being on display, but this time in the Alpha Centauri system. As Bones said in one of the old “Star Trek” movies, “The bureaucratic mentality is the only constant in the universe.”

Arthur was expected to know something he couldn’t possibly have known, and that’s why I identified with him this morning as I tried to install a new router and connect, after the installation, to the Internet. The little detail I suppose I was expected to know, and found nowhere in the very sketchy instructions, was that I had to unplug my modem after installation to reset it before I attempted to connect. I had to call my ISP tech support before I was made privy to that little fact.

I’m reminded of the VCR/DVD combo instructions that expected me to intuit the step they left out about programming. But I’m also thinking of the way dysfunctional systems from governments to churches to corporations to families operate. The unreasonable expectation that people should possess knowledge they could not possibly have is the common denominator in them all. There’s always some regulation or a way of behaving or an essential detail of a plan that’s assumed by insiders to be known by all. But of course it’s not, and that’s how dysfunctional systems and people keep their power.

The whole experience with the router has made me all the more determined to communicate clearly, not to assume people know things I might know or have had experiences I have had. I never made a New Year’s resolution, but maybe I just did.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

 

I’m glad for the variety of technological tools available to us these days, from medical diagnostics to digital cameras to laptops and the Internet. I wonder what we ever did without them.

But sometimes technology can bring grief and annoyance. Like when IE8 refuses to open a website I want/need to look at or my cell phone can’t get a signal in the middle of nowhere.  Or when I’m buying a new piece of tech.

The latter experience brought some reminders of lessons I should have learned, but never quite seem to:

  1. Ask lots of questions and get all the facts up front. I didn’t, so buying my new laptop was a great deal less pleasant that I wanted or expected.
  2. Don’t be in a hurry. I guess I wanted the techs at the shop where I bought my new machine to be miracle workers. It was unreasonable to expect that all my files would be transferred over from my old computer quickly and with no problems.
  3. Think things through. I deleted Office 2003 off the old machine before I had imported my .pst files into Outlook on my new laptop, and I didn’t know how to open those files. So, I had to call the tech at the shop. He was very helpful, but i should have made sure I had everything up and running on the new computer before getting rid of stuff on the old. If I had simply thought about it, I would have been more cautious.
  4. Remember Occam’s Razor. “All other things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the right one.” Neither IE8 nor Google Chrome would open certain websites. I had the problem on the old machine and on the new. I finally found the cause—a bad router—when I asked what the common element between the two might be and tested my theory.
  5. Ask for help. Besides the shop tech, I asked questions of a couple of my former students, who happen to be IT guys. Another problem led me to ask some clergy colleagues for a solution. All that assistance got me going again.

Now if I can just remember and practice those lessons, not only when dealing with tech but in all of life.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

 

I was truly gratified to find that my college friend Pat Terry was recording again. Pat was something of a guitar hero to me at the University of Georgia. I still remember being thrilled whenever he did a concert at College Life (the big Sunday night gathering of Campus Crusade). This was back in the 70s, when he had the Pat Terry Group, one of the premiere acts in what’s now known as “Contemporary Christian Music,” but then was called “Jesus music.” They did wonderful stuff like “I Can’t Wait to See Jesus” and “I’ve Been Wanting to Tell You.” I had never heard anything like it.

Pat’s music and theology matured as he did. The group eventually broke up, Pat became a solo act, and his approach to faith became much more nuanced, as I recall from a conversation in my breakfast room in Montevallo, AL in the 1980s. His last solo album was in 1985, and he began writing country music.

Just on a whim, I searched for him on Facebook the other day and, though I didn’t find a page for Pat himself, I did find a fan page with a website listed. I went there immediately and found that he has a new studio album, “Laugh for a Million Years.” The title track is a tribute to a mutual friend, Mark Heard. Of course, I ordered the CD right away and look forward to its arrival.

I’m still trying to figure out what Pat’s re-emergence as a recording artist means to me. Maybe it’s just a nice blast from the past. Maybe it’s more than that. I’m still thinking about that one.

For Pat’s new album and to read his blog and other materials, go to www.patterryonline.com.

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We’ve all been saddened by the terrible devastation in Haiti, the worst in the poor nation’s history. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have suffered such loss, especially in a country that already had inadequate infrastructure. With even that gone, it’s so very hard even to get the most basic necessities in. I pray that God will bring healing to shattered lives, and all people of good will may show compassion.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, like so many other agencies, is helping. To contribute, visit www.pcusa.org/pda. Thanks to Elder Tom Carroll of the First Presbyterian Church in Amory, MS for the info on the link.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

 

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many (Romans 5:15).

I am constantly amazed at what one person can do, for good or ill. Like the one degree of difference that stands between an orange crop being saved or ruined, a single individual can create havoc or influence many to change their world for the better.

The failed Christmas Day airline bomber is an example of the former. He threatened the lives of the passengers and crew on that plane, and subsequently set in motion a review of our airline security that exposed failures of intelligence we can hope will now be dealt with. We could also think of any number of terrorist masterminds and despicable dictators through history. Or the drunk who decides to get behind the wheel of a car. Then, on a much smaller scale and of much less significance, there’s the incompetent postal clerk in another city who misrouted an important piece of our mail and caused my wife and me a great deal of inconvenience.

For the latter, I was thrilled to hear the story of a third grade teacher who 20 years ago challenged his students to meet again with him and each other after those two decades. Many of them, now young adults and parents, did just that, so inspired were they by their teacher. Or how about the Nigerian banker, the father of the Northwest Airlines terrorist, who sought to alert authorities about his son’s beliefs and the threat he posed? And, of course, there’s Capt. Sullenberger, brought to our attention again as the Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade.

Any of us could think of one person who made a huge difference in our lives, whether helping and encouraging us or hindering and hurting us along the way. The former are our heroes, the latter our personal terrorists.

Paul has in mind One who made the difference for all humankind. Through him, the One, Jesus, the grace of God abounds in a world where graciousness is increasingly scarce. Through this One, peace of mind and heart comes, as we hear him say “Do not be afraid,” in a time when fear rules. Through him, the One, sin is conquered and death’s dominion done away, in our era when “the wrong seems oft so strong” and Death glares at us from the TV and Internet reports.

When things threaten to fall apart, they are held together by the One.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 3:17-4:1).

Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen (Matthew 13:43).

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).

My late sister Carol Ann was born on January 6. So Epiphany will be for some years, I expect, a bittersweet festival for me and my family.

But experiencing the day as both a celebration of the manifestation of Christ and a reminder of loss is not a bad thing. Maybe because I recall on a festival day someone I have lost, I will be more attuned to the loneliness and grief of others. Like the family in the news whose father was shot and killed in front of his children while working for the Salvation Army. Or the people here in Starkville who grieve over three women and six children lost in an apartment fire the Monday following Christmas. Or those who have no one with whom to enjoy Christmas cheer, for whom this time of year is full of depression and unwanted solitude, not the light of friendship, the glow of joy.

Looking at the world these days, it would be easy to “lose heart” as the apostle put it. For all the songs about peace on Earth, there is none. The Christmas spirit now abroad will likely be replaced by the same self-seeking that seems to rule our lives the rest of the year. Even the churches ignore the teachings of Jesus in favor of bickering over internal issues whose resolution will not lead people closer to our Lord.

So it is even more incumbent on those who want faithfully to follow Jesus to shine as he did, to display his glory in their lives. And the best way to do that is to bring the glow of hope into the lives of the despairing, to lift up with a word of comfort those who are grieving, and to shine the light of truth for those who seek meaning. Let’s start right where we are—with our own families, in our own community, in our own churches. Let the light of Jesus be a beacon through you and me that cannot be overcome.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham