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FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH

April 8, 2018

There is no doubt that superstitions influence the behavior and peace of mind of human beings around the world. The variations are almost limitless. Breaking mirrors, spilling salt, walking under ladders, or lighting a third cigarette with one match are well-known taboos. For those who are superstitious, no day holds as much peril as Friday the 13th. The very thought of a black cat crossing one’s path on such a day is enough to send ordinarily sane men and women into conniptions.

For a group of Chicago-based business lesders and inveterate debunkers in the middle part of the last century, each Friday the 13th was the perfect opportunity to point out how thoroughly preposterous such fears can be.

In December 1941, Life magazine reported on the Anti-Superstition Society of Chicago.

At 6:13 p.m. on Friday, the 13th of December, 169 audacious and irreverent gentlemen sat down to dine at 13 tables in Room 13 of the Merchants & Manufacturers Club of Chicago. Each table seated 13. Upon each rested an open umbrella, a bottle of bourbon and 13 copies of a poem called “The Harlot.”  The speaker’s table was strewn with horseshoes, old keys, old shoes, mirrors, and cardboard black cats. Before the head table was an open coffin with 13 candles. The occasion was the 13th Anniversary Jinx-Jabbing Jamboree and Dinner of the Anti-Superstition Society of Chicago which meets regularly on Friday the 13th. Behind the ribaldry of its recurrent dinners lies the very sound thesis that superstition annually costs this country an inexcusable sum of time and money. People postpone trips because of mirrors and cats. Businessmen defer decisions because of coincidences of the calendar.

On Friday, May 13, 2011, an Anti-Superstition Bash was held near Essington, Pennsylvania. The event was designed to help party attendees overcome many of their superstitions. The organizers wanted to end magical thinking.  Participants enjoyed such events as Ladder Limbo, Horoscope Trashing, Open-Your-Umbrella Dancing, and a Mirror Breaking Ceremony.

Why do some folks expect Friday the 13th to bring bad luck? The day combines two old superstitions, the fear of the number 13 and the fear of Fridays.

According to David Emery, who analyzes urban legends, the phobia of the number 13 may have come from the Hindus, who believed it was unlucky for 13 people to gather in one place.

The same superstition has been attributed to the ancient Vikings. Twelve gods were invited to a banquet at Valhalla. The god of mischief, left off the guest list, crashed the party, bringing the total number of attendees to 13.  A murder occured at the table. The Norse concluded that having 13 people at a dinner party is bad luck. This developed into the legend that if 13 people sit down to a meal together, all will die within the year.

The Egyptians at the time of the pharaohs considered number 13 unlucky. They believed life unfolded in 12 stages followed by a 13th stage, death.  In Tarot, the Death Card bears the number 13.

Christians believe that 13 people were seated at the Last Supper. Judas, the traitor, was the last to arrive, the first to leave, and the first to die.

My father-in-law, Mr. Jack, who traveled frequently, refused to stay in a room on the 13th floor of a hotel.  Many hotels, apartment buildings, and office buildings don’t even have a 13th floor. Most airlines skip 13 when numbering aisles. Many cities do not have a 13th Street or a 13th Avenue. In Formula One racing, no car carries the number 13.

Mothers, be careful how you name your children! The infamous serial killers Jack the Ripper, Charles Manson, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Theodore Bundy, all have 13 letters in their names.

In an episode of the television series “Friends,” Ross believed that triskaidekaphobia was a fear of Triscuits, the Nabisco snack cracker.

Triskaidekaphobia is the fear of the number 13, a malady that affects many people.

There is a long-standing tradition that Friday is a day of bad luck. The name Friday was derived from Freya, the Norse goddess of love worshipped on the sixth day. Her sacred animal was a cat. She was recast in early Christianity as a witch. In the Middle Ages, Friday was known as the Witches’ Sabbath.

Because Jesus was crucified on a Friday, the Church has always been leary of the day. Christians began attributing just about everything terrible to Friday: Eve offering Adam the apple in the Garden of Eden; the Great Flood; the destruction of the Temple of Solomon; and the Massacre of the Innocents by Herod.

Some people never begin a new project or embark on a trip on a Friday, fearing they will be doomed from the start.

Sailors were particularly superstitious, often refusing to ship out on a Friday. In order to quell the superstition, the British Navy commissioned a ship in the 1800s called H.M.S. Friday. They laid her keel on a Friday, selected the crew on a Friday, launched the ship on a Friday, and selected Captain James Friday as the ship’s commander. On a bright Friday morning, the ship set off on its maiden voyage. It was never heard from again.

There are other superstitions about Friday. Never change your bed sheets on Friday because it will bring bad dreams. If you cut your nails on Friday, you will have misfortune.

In Rome, Friday was execution day. In Britain, Friday was the conventional day for public executions. 13 steps lead up to the hangman’s noose.

Both Friday and the number 13 have foreboding reputations. The conjunction of the two, Friday the 13th, portends added misfortune. It may be the most widespread superstition in the United States. Some people won’t go to work or eat in restaurants on Friday the 13th. Few would think of setting a wedding on the date.

Dr. Donald Dossey, a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of phobias, coined the term paraskevidekatriaphobia, the fear of Friday the 13th.  According to Dr. Dossey, 21 million Americans are afflicted. Eight percent of the population will have a tough day next Friday.

The Knights Templar, a legendary order of warrior monks, had grown so powerful by the 1300s, it was perceived as a political threat. On Friday, October 13, 1307, officers of King Philip IV of France carried out mass arrests in a dawn raid that left several thousand Templars in chains charged with heresy. None of these charges were ever proven.  Hundreds of Templars suffered excruciating tortures. Many died, some by burning at the stake.

The superstitions about Friday the 13th have more to do with personal experience than history. If we believe the day is unlucky, evidence isn’t hard to come by. If you have an automobile accident, lose your wallet, or spill your coffee next Friday, you might be tempted to blame it on the day. Look for bad luck on Friday the 13th, and you’ll probably find it.

You might decide to spend Friday, April 13, 2018, in the safety of your own home with doors locked, shutters closed, and fingers crossed.

Who knows? You might break a mirror, walk under a ladder, spill salt, or spy a black cat crossing your path.

Might I suggest another option?

Next Friday, we might exclaim with the Psalmist. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”  (Psalm 118:24)

 

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REFLECTIONS ON AN EARLY EASTER

March 31, 2018

The New York Times headline in the business and finance section on Thursday June 14, 1956, read, “MAN FALLS FROM PLANE:  Opens Wrong Door; Plunges 6,500 Feet to Death.”

Fifty years later, I conducted a graveside funeral at Zion Baptist Church set in the rolling hills of rural Cleveland County, North Carolina, a town located west of Shelby and north of the Broad River.

Following the service Bob Cabaniss, a lifelong member of the church and the community, said, “Preacher, let me show you something.”

He walked with me to a small granite marker that read,

ORAN ASA PRUITT

Fell from Airplane

June 13, 1956

Bob told the story of the fallen man. “I was over yonder on the next hill, running a tractor. The plane flew over, and I saw something fall. A fellow was down here digging a grave when this man fell out of the sky and landed right at this spot. He didn’t roll or bounce or anything. He just made a sizeable dent in the ground.”

Somewhat skeptical, I asked, “What happened?”

“Well, Oran Pruitt was flying from Winston-Salem to Asheville on a Piedmont twin-engine plane. Witnesses say he needed to go to the bathroom. He just opened the wrong door, and the wind sucked him right out of the plane. The worst thing about it was that he was on his honeymoon.”

“Did they bury the man here?”

“No, but he died when he hit the ground here in the cemetery. The fellow was buried somewhere else, but the deacons of the church decided to put down the marker.”

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

For the Christian world, the celebration of Easter offers hope beyond the grave.

Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. It comes unusually early this year on April 1. The timing of Easter follows the Hebrew lunar calendar.

The fact that Easter and April Fool’s Day coincided this year is an oddity. I am sure there is a juvenile joke or some profound insight to be gleaned from the unusual occurrence, but I have yet to find either.

I was ordained to the ministry on April 1, 1970.  Many comments and jokes have been made about that. I take some comfort from a passage written by the Apostle Paul, “We are fools for Christ.” (I Corinthians 4:10)

Usually Passover and Easter fall close to each other. The observance is linked to the Jewish Passover. The Last Supper, shared by Jesus and his disciples before his crucifixion, was a Passover meal.

This year, Jews and Christians observances  of these sacred remembrances overlapped. The eight-day festival of Passover is celebrated in the early spring, from the fifteenth through the twenty-second day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. This year Passover is March 30-April 7, 2018. Passover commemorates the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. It is observed by avoiding leaven, and is highlighted by the Seder meals that include retelling the story of the Exodus.

So Passover began on last Friday night and Easter is Sunday.

In both traditions, the concept of victory over death is a central belief. For Jews, Passover is a remembrance that the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites. They were liberated from bondage. For Christians, Easter celebrates the conquest of death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Death is inevitable for all of us. Sometimes it comes in unusual and shocking ways. It may come as a harsh intruder, as it did for Oran Pruitt. Sometimes death is a gentle blessing, as it was for the man whose service I conducted last week. However death occurs, we long for it to be a transition to a new life. In a very real sense, Easter never arrives early or late. It always comes at the right time.

In October 2006, Clare and I returned to Furman University to celebrate our fortieth class reunion.  At an alumni event on Friday night, a good friend in charge of the weekend activities handed me a list of names.  Her instructions were, “Since you are a man of the cloth, just before dinner tomorrow night we’d like you to read the names of our deceased classmates and offer a prayer.”

I glanced at the list.  I recognized most of the names but was surprised to learn of some of the deaths.

As Clare and I drove back to Spartanburg that Friday night, my reaction to reading the list of our late fellow graduates was, “What a tough job!  Class reunions are supposed to be fun.”  I pondered this dilemma.

We arrived early for the dinner the following night.  In conversation with a physician friend who graduated the year before we had, I expressed my sense of awkwardness about reading the list of the dead, confessing, “This could be a real bummer.”

“Just tell them what happened at our reunion last year.” Then he told an incredible story.

The previous year at their class reunion, they, too, paused a moment to remember their deceased classmates.  One alum’s name had appeared on the list of the dead for the past ten years following the thirtieth reunion.

As the names were being read, a voice in the crowd shouted, “Wait a minute!  You read my name, and I am not dead!”

The fellow who spoke from the crowd had mistakenly been counted among the dearly departed.  He had not been reading the alumni news, but saw the notice of his fortieth class reunion and decided to attend.  To say the least, he was surprised to hear his name read.

He later quoted Mark Twain, “The news of my death has been greatly exaggerated.”

As my physician friend shared the story, we laughed together.  He added, “We always give an award to the person who has traveled the greatest distance to attend our reunion.  Last year, we gave the award to our resurrected classmate.”

Never too early or too late, Easter always arrives just in the nick of time.

SALVATION ON THE SALUDA GRADE: A GOOD FRIDAY MEDITATION

March 30, 2018

A nine-mile stretch of road between Tryon and Saluda, North Carolina, known as the Saluda Grade, ascends the Blue Ridge Escarpment.  This narrow, winding highway follows every curvature of the mountain.  The building of the road was quite an achievement.  Much blasting was required to create the narrow roadbed.  All of the grading was done with drag pans pulled by teams of mules.  When the work was especially difficult, snatch teams, consisting of a pair of additional mules, were brought in to help pull the drag pan up the mountain. The Saluda Grade was built by mules and would have been better used by mules.

Traveling on the Saluda Grade was quite an experience.  In the days before I-26 was built, this section of old U.S. 176 was a major trucking route.  The sharp turns and cutbacks made it difficult for an automobile to stay in the right lane and impossible for an 18-wheel truck to do so.  Driving an automobile behind an 18-wheel truck up the Saluda Grade was an experience in patience.  Driving an automobile in front of an 18-wheeler descending the Saluda Grade was an experience in anxiety. Driving an automobile up the Saluda Grade and meeting an oncoming 18-wheeler coming down the mountain road was an experience in terror.

Around every twist and turn along the Saluda Grade messages about Jesus appeared on trees, rocks, and boards staked into the side of the mountain.  The signs, printed with statements such as “Jesus Died for Your Sins” or “Jesus Saves,” were obviously not designed by a sign shop.  If prepared ahead of time, they were made in someone’s barn or backyard.  The lettering was uneven and crooked.  Signs painted on rocks in the side of the mountain seemed impossible to reach.  I can imagine someone hanging over the edge of a rock face or perhaps dangling from a rope.  With paint and paintbrush in hand, someone had scrawled out messages of salvation in those sloppy, dripping letters.

I do not know about you, but signs like that offend my sensibilities.  After all, if you have something to say about Jesus, say it neatly.  Make it plain and neat and clear and legible.  If you want to make a sign about the ministry of the Lord, at least make it look dignified. Of course, it would be hard to make anything look dignified on the Saluda Grade, a road made with mules and drag pans.

One short stretch of the Saluda Grade had enough room for a third lane, an extra lane going uphill so automobiles would at least have a chance to pass those 18-wheelers.  In that wide bend in the road someone had erected a Saluda Grade version of a gift shop.  For sale in that log cabin were corncob pipes and apple cider, sourwood honey and country ham, chenille bedspreads adorned with peacocks and chenille bathrobes to match.  Even the restroom out back, made of wooden slabs, was complete with a crescent cut in the door.  There is just not much dignity on the Saluda Grade.

The cross as a symbol of the Christian faith is odd when you think about it. Most of the world’s great religions use an object of beauty to identify their faith – the Star of David, the crescent moon, the lotus flower. Christians have chosen the cross, a cruel instrument of execution. It might just as well be a guillotine or an electric chair!  Imagine wearing a piece of jewelry depicting a gold or silver lethal injection. That will make a person consider more deeply the adornment of a cross. Through death by crucifixion the Romans devised a way to inflict severe pain and suffering.

For me, there is a compelling beauty in the cross. It is a reminder of divine love.

Long ago and faraway, the cross of Calvary itself was a sign along the highway.  It certainly was not neat and tidy either.  It was dripping at the bottom with sorrow and water and blood, flowing mingled down.  Posted with spikes on rough-hewn timber, the cross had none of the dignity usually depicted in Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion.  Jesus was stripped, bruised, wounded, and crucified.  It is a kind of portrayal you would expect to see on the Saluda Grade.

I remember reading a reflection on the crucifixion by Frederick Buechner in his book The Hungering Dark.  Buechner commented on a Jesus Saves sign he had seen painted on a bridge abutment.  The gist of his comments was, as I remember, that the Jesus Saves sign was appropriate, but incomplete.

When you travel in the mountains, if you see a Jesus Saves sign, and you probably will, fill in the blank.  It is true that Jesus died for the whole world.  But this business of salvation is personal.  Jesus saves every Tom, Dick, and Harry who will believe in Him.  Jesus saves (your name).

You fill in the blank.

Jesus saves me, and Jesus saves you.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO REX

March 25, 2018

When I was two years old, my mother often took me outside to the front yard of our small frame house and put me in a playpen for some time in the sunshine.  For my entertainment, she placed several toys in the enclosure.  My favorite was a brightly colored rubber ball.

One day while I was in the playpen, the telephone rang.  Since this was in the days before portable phones and cellular phones, my mother stepped inside the house, only a few feet away, to answer the call.  In her absence, I threw the ball out into the yard.  To my shock and dismay, a large German shepherd dog, the pet of our across-the-street neighbors, retrieved the ball and leapt over the barrier into the playpen to return it to me.  When my mother saw the enormous dog with the ball in his mouth towering over me, she screamed.  The German shepherd left as quickly as he had come.  I was reduced to a sobbing, quivering state of fear.  From that day to this, when I see a German shepherd, I have a momentary pause.  Read more…

THE VERNAL EQUINOX

March 18, 2018

The cool rainy days last week called to mind another time. One March when I was a teenager, snow fell on three consecutive Wednesdays.  Just a few years ago, the temperature plummeted to fourteen degrees on a night in mid-March, nipping in the bud the bloom on many of our plants.

The Bible says, “for, lo, the winter is passed, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land” (Song of Solomon 2:11-12 KJV).  Even in my backyard now the truth of that Scripture is verified by the blooming of flowering bulbs and shrubs. Birds are singing.  The robins and the bluebirds have returned, preparing for their nesting.  But so far I have heard no sound from a turtle.

When I was a boy I used to think that passage was one of the strangest in the Bible.  I’ve spent a good bit of time out of doors and have heard the voice of a turtle only a time or two.  On one occasion, a very large snapping turtle had the poor taste to chomp down on a catfish line, embedding a rather large hook in his palate.  An angry snapping turtle makes an unmistakable sound.  I doubt that the poetry of the Bible had that hissing in mind.  Later translations substitute turtle with turtle dove, a bird I see every day in my backyard.

The fact that spring is at hand is unmistakable.  In his “Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” A better question is, if the daffodils are blooming, if the bluebirds are nesting, if basketball’s March madness is in full swing, can spring be far behind?

On Tuesday, March 20, 2018 at 12:15 PM daylight saving time, spring will arrive. This change may happen with little or no notice, but in the Upstate of South Carolina, at precisely 12:15 PM daylight saving time, the sun will cross directly over the earth’s equator. This moment is known as the vernal equinox in the northern hemisphere, the beginning of spring. In the southern hemisphere it is the autumnal equinox. Read more…

Saint Patrick

March 15, 2018

The story of Saint Patrick, one of the most beloved of all saints, is a strange mixture of history and legend. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in England about 385 A.D. His father was a deacon from a Roman family of high social standing. His mother was a close relative of Martin of Tours. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest in the Catholic Church.

When Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates captured and sold him into slavery in Ireland. Patrick worked as a shepherd for his master, a Druid high priest in the religion of the ancient Celts.

In time Patrick came to view his enslavement as a test of his faith. During his six years of captivity, he became devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. He explained in his Confessions that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance and gave him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and to be converted to Christianity.

At the age of twenty-two, Patrick had a dream, encouraging him to escape from Ireland. In that dream, the voice of God promised that he would find the way back to his homeland in England. Patrick began this journey by walking across Ireland to the coast where he convinced sailors to let him board their ship. After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the ship in France and wandered, lost, for twenty-eight days—covering 200 miles in the process. At last, Patrick was reunited with his family in England.

Patrick recounted another vision he had a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant, to come and walk among us.”

Interpreting this vision as a call from God, Patrick became determined to free the Irish from paganism by converting them to Christianity.  He never lost sight of that vision. Read more…

REMEMBERING DR. SEUSS

March 10, 2018

Friday, March 2 was celebrated again this year as National Read Across America Day. Elementary school students in many places dressed up like Dr. Seuss characters for the festivities. Why? Appropriately enough, March 2 is also the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

Clare and I still have children’s books in our home – a lot of children’s books. Clare treasures books as much as I do. Children’s books are among her favorites. She has saved books from her childhood and most of the books our five children enjoyed as they were growing up. Now our grandchildren love coming to our house and delving into Miz Clare’s Children’s Library. Clare has even set up her own check-out system so the grandchildren can borrow books and return them after enjoying them for a while.

My job is to keep the books in good repair. I patch the treasured volumes with tape when little hands accidentally tear a much-handled page.

I was at that task not long ago when I realized how many books we have that were written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss.

The Cat in the Hat is regarded as the defining book of Dr. Seuss’ career. The popular book was developed through a joint venture between Houghton Mifflin and Random House. Houghton Mifflin asked Dr. Seuss to write and illustrate a children’s primer using only 225 new-reader vocabulary words. Random House obtained the trade publication rights because Seuss was under contract to them, and Houghton Mifflin kept the school rights. With the release of The Cat in the Hat, Dr. Seuss became the America’s best known children’s book author and illustrator.

As I secured the crumbling spine of The Cat in the Hat with strapping tape, I wondered how the beloved Dr. Seuss got his start as a writer of children’s literature. An internet search revealed his fascinating story. Read more…