Monday, September 13, 2021

It's No Joke!

 The pastor began his sermon on Sunday July 18, by noting that the Gospel reading (Mark 6:30-34) contained a joke. This humorous incident begins with Jesus saying to his disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” So they set off in a boat to be by themselves. The people see them leaving and tell their neighbors. So folks from all the nearby towns hurry off to the vacation spot ahead of Jesus and his weary disciples. When the wannabe vacationers get out of the boat, they see the vast crowd. Consistent with his character, Jesus’ heart is filled with compassion: he sees these people as sheep without a shepherd, and he begins to teach them many things. 

As I pictured that scene I began to chuckle, for it reminded me of the hilarious movie What About Bob? Bob Wiley (Bill Murray) is mentally ill. From various incidents we discover that Bob suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder with agoraphobia, hypochondria, multiple phobias, as well as a very dependent personality. Indeed, Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) is about to discover what he’s gotten himself into by taking Bob on as his new patient. 

During their first session, Dr. Marvin tells Bob that he will be on vacation during the month of August so they will not be able to meet for a month. But Bob wilily discovers that his new psychiatrist is vacationing on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. So Bob audaciously shows up at Dr. Marvin’s vacation home.  

This is where What About Bob? and Jesus’ intended timeout with his disciples intersect. When Bob crashes Dr. Marvin's family vacation, the psychiatrist is shocked and repeatedly tries to send Bob packing. But when the crowd crashes the Messiah’s retreat, Jesus rolls with the intrusion and ministers to the people. 

Two virtues influence Bob Wiley as he “vacations” with the Marvin family. The first virtue is faith. Bob trusts Dr. Marvin and the principle explained in his new book, Baby Steps. Throughout the movie Bob takes “baby steps” to expand his behavioral horizons. He also overlooks Dr. Marvin’s outbursts and believes that the doctor’s inappropriate behavior is part of his therapy. 

The second virtue is hospitality. Dr. Marvin’s family—his wife Fay (Julie Hagerty), daughter Anna (Katheryn Erbe), son Sigmund (Charlie Korsmo), and eventually sister Lily (Fran Brill)—welcome Bob and accept him unconditionally. It’s actually a mutual acceptance: Bob saw family portraits during his initial visit in Dr. Marvin’s office, so when he meets “the fam” at Lake Winnipesaukee he recognizes them, remembers their names and warmly greets them. What’s more, when Mr. and Mrs. Guttman, neighbors who have issues with Dr. Marvin, meet Bob, they offer him a place to stay. 

As Bob basks in these virtues, he sheds his fears and reaches out to Dr. Marvin’s family, especially to his son and daughter, Siggy and Anna. Bob’s symptoms of mental illness gradually decrease. But Dr. Marvin finds it impossible to welcome Bob and work with him while he is on vacation. The doctor repeatedly rejects Bob, but Bob always comes back for more. As Bob’s symptoms decrease, Leo Marvin’s emotional distress increases such that he has to be hospitalized.

What About Bob? is, of course, a supposal: Suppose a severely mentally ill man discovers where his psychiatrist is vacationing and shows up for the help he so desperately needs. And suppose the psychiatrist refuses to welcome the man, but his family lovingly accepts him. In the real world, the psychiatrist would call the police and have the man arrested—or at least obtain a restraining order against him. The incident might appear on the local news, but that would be the end of it. 

What About Bob? helps us see the irony, the joke, conveyed in Mark 6:30-34: Jesus and his disciples need rest, but the crowd rushes in with its own agenda. What’s more, this film serves as a backdrop to help us see the glory of our Lord’s response to needy people. Unlike Dr. Marvin, Jesus understands that these people are like sheep without a shepherd, and he begins to teach them many things. Jesus expresses the glory of God’s mercy as he shepherds his people. In contrast, Dr. Marvin goes crazy trying to deny Bob the attention he so desperately craves.

But what about the fact that Jesus and his disciples didn’t get their well-deserved retreat? There seems to be no rest for the weary. When I served as a pastor, passages like this used to frustrate me. I wondered why Jesus allowed his flock to rob him of rest. Why didn’t Jesus set better boundaries? I certainly didn’t get the joke, for as a pastor I had precious little time to recuperate. Was this situation a model for pastoral ministry? I hoped not!

Comparing Mark 6:30-34 with What About Bob? helps me realize that Jesus is the model for pastors, for parents, and for all who minister in Jesus’ name. First and most fundamentally, Jesus is our rest. He is the author and the source of restfulness (see Genesis 2:1-3; John 1:3; Colossians 1:15ff; Hebrews 4:9-16). Mark’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was able to sleep even in the midst of a violent storm (Mark 4:35-41). We might say that Jesus is the essence of restfulness, for he told his disciples, 

Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

Perhaps on this occasion Jesus was teaching his disciples the skill of resting “on location.” 

Second, it’s apparent that Dr. Marvin’s refusal to work with Bob ends badly, whereas Jesus’ ministry to the crowd ends beautifully. By God’s grace we strive to set appropriate boundaries and minister to people as we rest in our Lord Jesus Christ. That is our lifelong challenge and opportunity. 

© Stan Bohall 

September 13, 2021

Friday, August 27, 2021

Of Desert, Dessert and Desert

 Of Desert, Dessert and Desert

Over the past month, I’ve been reading Charles Dickens’ American Notes, his journal of experiences in and impressions of America during his first trip to our country in 1842. By that time, he was a thirty-year-old pop sensation. In his concluding remarks, I came across this statement about the pervasively negative influence of our press upon the populace: “When any man, of any grade of desert in intellect or character, can climb to any public distinction, no matter what, in America, without first grovelling down upon the earth, and bending the knee before this monster of depravity [i.e. newspapers] . . . then, I will believe that its influence is lessening, and men are returned to their manly senses.

Dickens’ statement about the American press is still true today, but what piqued my interest as I read this passage was the word desert, by which Dickens meant something deserved or merited. It has the same pronunciation as dessert, the sweet food often served as the last course of a meal. When I looked up desert in a dictionary, I discovered that it and its companion, dessert, provide interesting examples of homonyms, homographs, and homophones. 

Dessert and desèrt (to abandon; and something deserved or merited: i.e. one’s just deserts) are homophones—words that sound alike but are spelled differently. Désert (an arid area), desèrt (to abandon someone) and desèrt (something deserved or merited) are homographs—words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Desèrt (something deserved or merited) and desèrt (to abandon) are homonyms—words having the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings and origins. 

One reason this group of words is interesting to me is that I’m working with English language learners who want to improve their knowledge and use of our language. I enjoy discussing some of the unusual features of American English with them, so Dickens’ use of the word desèrt prompted me to do some research. One author prefaced his comments on the difference between desert, dessert, and desert with this observation: “The English language is a minefield where spelling and pronunciation are concerned. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most difficult languages to learn.”

The cluster of words under consideration isn’t on the top of my list to bring to the attention of my language partners, especially early on; yet, it is important to discuss homophones, homographs and homonyms as they arise during our conversations. 

So my real interest here is the word desèrt in the sense Dickens used it. I love words and I love to play with them, and when I saw Dickens using a familiar word in an unfamiliar way, I was hooked. I don't remember seeing or hearing desèrt used in this way except in the sense of someone receiving his just deserts; and, honestly, since I am spelling-challenged, I would have spelled that word desserts. In fact the Google docs spell-check urges me to spell it that way. And at least one website says that, in spite of the origin of the phrase (1275-1325; Middle English < Old French deserte), just desserts is acceptable now since it is more common than just deserts in twenty-first century texts. I guess I have a lot of company in the “fellowship of challenged spellers.”

Interestingly, later in his “Concluding Remarks,” Dickens writes that if there were an established religion in America, we would desert it. I don’t recall that Dickens commented on American desserts in his journal of the roughly four-month tour of America, but he did consider the possibility that Americans could have a “grade of desert in intellect or character” and of our propensity to desert an established church if such a thing existed. 

If I ever fully understand the nuances of desert, dessert and desert, I might try to understand this grammatically correct sentence: “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo,” used in 1972 by William J. Rapaport, professor at (you guessed it) the University of Buffalo, in Buffalo, NY.

© Stan Bohall

June 14, 2021

Monday, August 16, 2021

Of Mercy in Nicholas Nickleby

 Our Responsorial Psalm for July 4, 2021 was Psalm 123: 

A Song of Ascents.

To you I lift up my eyes,

    O you who are enthroned in the heavens!

Behold, as the eyes of servants

    look to the hand of their master,

as the eyes of a maidservant

    to the hand of her mistress,

so our eyes look to the Lord our God,

    till he has mercy upon us.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,

    for we have had more than enough of contempt.

Our soul has had more than enough

    of the scorn of those who are at ease,

    of the contempt of the proud (ESV).

This is a Song of Ascents, one of fifteen pilgrim psalms for the faithful as they make their way up to Jerusalem. If these songs progress chronologically, the pilgrims have already made their way into the Temple, for Psalm 122 begins, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’ Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!” Yet, there is a great sense of longing for mercy in Psalm 123. The reason is expressed in its last four lines. “. . . for we have had more than enough of contempt. / Our soul has had more than enough / of scorn of those who are at ease / of the contempt of the proud.” As one commentator has expressed, “The pilgrims have returned from Babylon to a ruined city and a neglected land. Hostile colonists mocked their efforts to rebuild (Neh. 2:19).” 

It is natural to focus on the image of the servant and the maidservant, and in particular how their eyes are cast upon the hands of their master and mistress pleading for mercy. “So our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he has mercy upon us.” But on July 4, I was drawn to the word mercy. That’s because the congregational response, “Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, pleading for his mercy,” reminded me of a passage in chapter 59 of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas Nickleby’s uncle and his primary antagonist, is visited by Charles Cheeryble on an errand of mercy. 

By this time, the Cheeryble brothers and others have enough information about Ralph and his crimes to ruin him. Instead of throwing the book at him, Charles Cheeryble comes to Ralph to offer mercy. 

Yet, Ralph preempts Charles’ message: “Not a word. I tell you, sir, not a word. Virtuous as you are, you are not an angel yet, to appear in men’s houses whether they will or not, and pour your speech into unwilling ears. Preach to the walls, I tell you; not to me!”

Charles responds, “I am no angel, Heaven knows . . . but an erring and imperfect man; nevertheless, there is one quality which all men have, in common with the angels, blessed opportunities of exercising, if they will; mercy. It is an errand of mercy that brings me here. Pray let me discharge it.” 

Ralph’s response is truly sobering. “‘I show no mercy . . . and I ask none. Seek no mercy from me, sir, in behalf of the fellow [Nicholas] who has imposed upon your childish credulity, but let him expect the worst that I can do.’” 

To extend mercy to our neighbors and to receive mercy from the Lord God and from our neighbors is indispensable for an emotionally and spiritually healthy life. One of the values of reading Nicholas Nickleby is seeing how Ralph Nickleby’s rejection of mercy plays out for him in contrast with how mercy extended to and accepted by Nicholas affects his life. 

Indeed, it prompts us to consider times when we have received mercy from the Lord and from others, and to ponder times when we have extended mercy to others, even to our enemies. We might also take note of how those experiences have shaped our lives.

© Stan Bohall 

August 9, 2021