Johnny, Who the Hell Were Ye, Anyway?

mojackMay 29, 2019 – Jack Kennedy – that rich, sex addicted, dissembling, amoral philanderer who charmed a generation and kept the world from blowing up – would be 102 today.

I still miss him. Here’s an essay I wrote last year on the 55th anniversary of his assassination.

November 22, 2018 – Today is Thanksgiving and also the 55th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As Billy Joel put it, “JFK, blown away, what else do I have to say?”

After more than half century, the ironies we feel at our Thanksgiving tables have nothing to do with JFK. This year other things mitigate the blessings we count. In 1963, we knew the occupant in the Oval Office had stirred the idealism of a generation by favoring Civil Rights, planning fair housing and fair employment opportunities for struggling working people, seeking an end to the arms race, calling for humane immigration laws, and sparking the greatest technological advances in history by setting a goal to land a human being on the moon. All that made it possible, even in the gloom a week after his death, to celebrate a day of thanks.

Today our thanks are mitigated by another dweller in the Oval Office, a chief executive whose racism and xenophobia are palpable, who doesn’t believe in science or global warming, who believes tax cuts should benefit the rich and not the poor, who believes teachers and pastors should be armed with guns, and who has slammed the door on millions of would-be immigrants to the United States.

In many respects, it’s harder to be thankful today than it was November 28, 1963, a time of deep national mourning.

Those of us of a certain age remember John F. Kennedy with unfeigned fondness. As one whose memories of November 22, 1963 will always be painful, I rarely see a picture of JFK without thinking how much better it was when we admired and trusted the Oval Office occupant and when most people respected the President regardless of party.

I would hate to think those days are gone forever and in my more rational moments I sense the current circus in Washington will be gone in an election or two.

But also – in my more rational moments – I am beginning to sense that my scorn for Trump is making it hard to be objective in my idealistic affection for Kennedy.

One thing Jack and the Donald had in common: they were both rich men’s sons with a strong sense of sexual entitlement and misogyny on steroids. I’d like to think JFK was too much of a gentleman to grab genitalia without warning, but Stormy Daniels’ description of Trump’s assault reminded me of White House intern Mimi Alford’s description of how she lost her virginity to JFK in the White House residence: “The next thing I knew he was standing in front of me, his face inches away,” she writes. “He placed both hands on my shoulders and guided me toward the edge of the bed.”

Another thing JFK and DJT have in common is the ability to get away with it. Most reporters and all Secret Service agents knew Kennedy was having trysts with different women on the average of once a week, but no one thought it was appropriate to invade the president’s privacy. When a reporter asked White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger about Kennedy’s affairs, Salinger said, “Listen, he’s the president of the United States. He has to work 16, 17, 18 hours a day. He’s got to handle foreign policy. He’s got to handle domestic policy. If he’s got time for mistresses after that, what the hell difference does it make?” The reporter laughed and nothing was ever written.

That was a time when the press and most Americans believed the private life of the president was no one else’s business. But even before the #MeToo movement cast light on the widespread abuse of women by powerful men, politicians knew they were under greater scrutiny. A Republican House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton over his 1990s affair with Monica Lewinsky, and earlier this year Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said “looking back on it, Clinton should have resigned.”

Trump’s misogyny, on the other hand, has taken place under the full glare of the klieg lights and scores of women have come forward to accuse him of abusive behavior. Still, his popularity polls, which hover at just over 30 percent, are unaffected and Trump’s base remains strongly supportive of him. But I have serious doubts whether history will be as kind to Trump as it has been to JFK.

Looking back on the 55 years since he has been gone, I confess I still think JFK was a great and effective president and I still miss him greatly. There was so much that he did right, and millions of Baby Boomers were inspired by his example to lead constructive lives that made the world better.

But there was so much about John F. Kennedy that we did not know when he was alive, principally, that he was a powerful man who took advantage of scores of powerless women.

How much difference would it have made if we had known?

That’s a contextual question that is difficult to answer in 2018. It’s a little like condemning Washington because he owned slaves in the 18th century, or scorning Lincoln because he was a racist in the 19th century. In the 1960s, Kennedy’s sexual conduct was placed in the category of “what the hell difference does it make?” and in 2018 the same behavior is clearly monstrous.

But that is the point. The behavior is clearly monstrous.

And the current occupant of the Oval Office – and his minions – would do well to remember that.

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Saint Sophie of Forchtenberg

saintsophieSophia Magdalena Scholl died in 1943 when she was 22. That was about three years, psychologists reckon, before her cerebral cortex was fully developed.

But despite that, or perhaps because of it, she was one of the most conspicuous heroes of the Second World War.

Sophie Scholl was born May 9, 1921 in Forchtenberg, Germany. She was the daughter of socially active Lutheran parents. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, many German Lutherans stepped back, recalling Martin Luther’s instructions to obey civil authority.

But the Scholls were early members of the resistance, and Sophie and her brother instigated anti-Nazi activities in college. They formed a group called the White Rose and in 1942 and 1943 they distributed thousands of leaflets urging Germans to passively resist the regime.

They were not subtle about it. According to the Holocaust Research Project, “On February 18, 1943, the Scholl’s brought a suitcase full of leaflets to the university. They hurriedly dropped stacks of copies in the empty corridors for students to find when they flooded out of lecture rooms. Leaving before the class break, the Scholl’s noticed that some copies remained in the suitcase and decided it would be a pity not to distribute them. They returned to the atrium and climbed the staircase to the top floor, and Sophie flung the last remaining leaflets into the air.”

That dramatic and impetuously reckless move attracted the attention of the Gestapo. The Scholls were arrested and brought to trial on 21 February 1943. Sophie was unrepentant.

“Somebody, after all, had to make a start,” she said. “What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just do not dare express themselves as we did.”

Sophie and her brother, Hans, were executed the following day by guillotine. According to witnesses, her last words were, “Die Sonne scheint noch.” The sun still shines.

Sophie’s singular defiance is a judgment on millions of Germans, most of them Lutherans and Catholics, who stood back while Hitler’s atrocities moved forward.

But her death was not unnoticed.

At the end of her life, Adolf Hitler’s personal secretary remembered Sophie Scholl.

“I was satisfied that I wasn’t personally to blame and that I hadn’t known about these things, I wasn’t aware of the extent,” said Traudl Junge, referring to the Holocaust.

“But one day I went past the memorial plaque which had been put up for Sophie Scholl. And I saw she was born the same year as me, and she was executed the same year I started working for Hitler.

“And at that moment I actually sensed that it was no excuse to be young.”

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May 13, 2019 – Mom – Mary Christina Emerson Jenks – would have been 96 today.

On a cold, rainy May day here in Port Chester, N.Y., I am remembering how she used to love the warmth and flowers of May.

In the Catskills where she grew up, and in Central New York where she lived most of her life, May is the month when Spring declares its final victory over the bleak and snowy winter.

Mom hated winter and was hoping to retire in Florida, but she died in a Syracuse hospital days after her 60th birthday so it was not to be.

Happily, Mom was vibrant and active right up until the sudden onslaught of Acute Myloid Leukemia. She had just returned from a trip to the Soviet Union where she met with other nurses and complained of being tired when she got back. I called her to ask if she would be up to a visit and she said of course, she would certainly feel better in a week. But the tiredness got worse. She was already in the hospital when I made it home, sitting up in her bed and blithely handing out gifts and souvenirs from her Soviet trip.

As a registered nurse, she had no illusions about the particularly devastating form of leukemia she had but she remained positive until the end. The last night I saw her in the hospital she was breathing through an oxygen mask and couldn’t converse freely, so she asked me to read the 23rd psalm to her – authorized version – until she fell asleep.

I find it comforting that she packed a lot into her 60 years, and when people ask me about her I’m reminded how remarkable she was.

As a young adult she was legally blind. She and her brother had a genetic disease that caused the progressive deterioration of their corneas and during my teen years she could see only dark silhouettes of the images in front of her. “It was like seeing the world through wax paper,” she explained.

But her poor vision was not sufficiently disabling to keep her from entering the house building and real estate business, which she did when I was still in high school. She formed a small business called Morrisville Quality Homes and I remember watching the first of the sturdy houses go up in a lot behind our street. She couldn’t help with the actual construction but she spent hours sanding walls and feeling the smoothness with her fingers.

She was working inside one of the houses in 1963 when the radio reported the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In a strange way she was not surprised by that because she had for years talked about a premonition that a Democrat would be elected in 1960 and would die in office. Mom’s eclectic religious views were Presbyterian-plus. She also believed in disambiguation and seances and she admired the works of the clairvoyant Edgar Cayce.

When I was in the Air Force in the 1960s, she had a cornea transplant and her vision was completely restored. This type of eye surgery was still rare and her head had to be immobilized between two sandbags as she recovered in the hospital bed. When she removed the bandages, her immediate reaction became part of family lore: “Oh, my, that coffee is so black and that saucer is so white.”

Mom and two of my sibs – Larry and Jim – visited me in England in 1967, in part, she told one of my high school girl friends, “so I can see what he really looks like.” We toured London, saw Dr. Zhivago in a theater filled with cigarette smoke, and visited the Air Force base where I lived. Mom was particularly delighted by the English flower boxes in front of every home and she absorbed everything with moist, clear eyes.

The following year she enrolled in the nursing program at the State University of New York in Morrisville and I’m sure all my siblings remember helping her memorize the names of bones, tissues, and human organs. Once she had her degree she went to work as a nurse in the Gerrit Smith Nursing Home in Eaton. She enjoyed working there with my sister Susan, sister-in-law Colleen, Darrin, and others she loved.

Mom loved her children and grandchildren unconditionally, and she showed her Depression-era sensibilities by making sure everyone had enough to live on and, in some cases, had everything we wanted. I once mused it would be nice to have a microwave oven and she whipped out her credit card before I could finish the sentence.

Mom was a nursing supervisor when she fell ill. Becoming a nurse was a lifetime ambition for her, and I’m glad she was able to fulfill that goal so happily. She modeled a life that helped the rest of us face life’s hills and valleys with courage, optimism, and grace.

Thirty-six years on, it still seems unfair that she was taken from us so early. In my reveries I like to imagine her as an old lady handing out little gifts to her grands and great-grands, surfing the internet, which she would have loved, following the Yankees on a huge HDTV screen, and expressing her horror over what Donald Trump is doing to her beloved country.

How she would have loved talking about all that in the weekly phone conversations she used to have with her offspring who had moved away.

And how I miss those conversations even after so many years.


For a local television station’s documentary of Mary Emerson Jenks’ cornea transplant experience, click here.

The drawing above was inspired by the copious work of Brother Robert Lentz, OFM, who has created icons for hundreds of non-canonical saints.

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How Quickly We Forgot


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Memoir. Ten Commandment Patio Break

partiosmokeIn the fall of 1964, I completed the first phase of my Air Force Basic Training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. The second and final stage of basic would continue at Amarillo Air Force Base, Texas, where I would also attend the Chaplain Services Specialist tech school.

Our flight trainees received assignments to various Air Force tech schools during the fifth week of training at Lackland. Airman First Class Elihu Ellefson, our training instructor, read the assignments to us as we stood at parade rest in front of the barracks. Until that moment, I had been a perfectly invisible trainee. Ellefson changed all that.

Reading off our names in alphabetical order, Ellefson elicited both groans and sighs of relief as he announced various assignments. Some would go to Air Police Training at Lackland. Others would go to jet mechanics training in Illinois. Some would be trained as file clerks, and at least one other would be sent to language school to serve as an interpreter.

When he got to my name, Ellefson looked stunned. He took off his hat and threw it on the ground.

“Jenks,” he said. “Chaplain. God damn.”

My fellow trainees looked at me with curiosity. Actually, I was not going to be a chaplain but an enlisted assistant to chaplains, who were commissioned officers. But nobody made that distinction, and for the first time in five weeks, everyone seemed to know my name.

“Chaplain! Jenks! God damn!” Several airmen, still at parade rest, broke ranks to echo Ellefson’s reaction. Later, airmen smiled at me and shook their heads. I sensed they jumped to the conclusion that I was “religious,” which was a peculiar concept to most of them, or gay. I did my best to fade back into the crowd of basic trainees, which was usually easy, because we looked alike with our shaved heads and baggy green fatigues. But guys who had never noticed me before were now remembering my name.

One or two nights before we were bused out to our new assignments, the flight was given a final patio break. There were several outdoor break areas strewn around the base that included benches and soda machines so trainees could have occasional respite from relentless marching. I looked forward to the patio breaks as a chance to indulge in the two main pleasures allowed us, namely, smoking cigarettes and drinking Dr. Pepper (two unsavory habits I broke years ago).

On this last break we were finally allowed to shed our heavy fatigues and wear our special tan summer uniforms that the Air Force dubbed 1505’s. As I sat down on a bench, an airman I had never seen before sat beside me. He seemed to know who I was, perhaps because he had heard rumors I was going to be a – God damn! – chaplain.

I never did get the young man’s name. He was tall and deeply tanned, the stubble on his head was black, and I think he would have described himself as Chicano.

We exchanged light talk about the steamy warm weather in San Antonio, how glad we were the Lackland phase of basic training was almost over, and what might happen next.

“I think,” the airman said, “that if I still don’t have a girlfriend when I get out of the Air Force and finish college, I might become a priest.”

“That’s good,” I said. Actually, I had similar plans to become a Protestant minister, which, of course, would not be complicated by celibacy.

“But it’s not easy, believing all that stuff,” the young man said. “That’s why I’m always glad to read about miracles that science can’t explain.”

He began listing phenomena about which I hadn’t thought a lot or had already dismissed as trickery: the plaster Madonnas whose eyes seemed to brim with tears, the statues of Jesus with hands apparently oozing with blood, or the unearthing of long-dead saints whose bodies had been perfectly preserved.

I shrugged. There was nothing in my Protestant experience to help me evaluate these spectacles.

“These miracles give such an oomph to my faith,” the airman said, drawing deeply on his cigarette.

I lit up a Lucky and we sat quietly for a few minutes, wreathed in blue smoke and the heavy Texas air.

“But it’s not easy,” the airman repeated. “Look at the Ten Commandments.”

I didn’t need to look because I had already memorized them as part of a Junior High Sunday School exercise at the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y. The church had promised us new bibles if we could recite from memory the Decalogue and three other scripture passages (specifically excluding “Jesus Wept”) during our Sunday morning assemblies. We memorized verses from the King James Version and the new gift bibles were Revised Standard Version, which changed all the words, so some of us thought it was a gyp. But I still had in my head the Ten Commandments, albeit with a Medieval cadence.

A Squadron Bell signaled the end of the Patio Break. The airman took one last drag on his cigarette and tossed it into a red-painted butt can.

“You know,” he said sadly, “I’ve already broken all but two of the Ten Commandments.”

I tossed my cigarette into the can and tried to think of something wise to say. But when I turned to say goodbye he had already disappeared into the darkness. I never saw him again.

When I got back to the barracks I climbed into my upper bunk and waited for Airman Ellefson to turn off the lights.

I started to wonder – and I have been wondering ever since – which two of the ten this young man had never broken.

I assumed he had never killed, so I concluded he was safe from the perils of the fifth commandment.

But what of the other nine? Which had he never broken?

I began to realize it was a claim I might not be able to make. Even at 18, I had often acted as if the One God did not exist. I had certainly taken the Lord’s name in vain. I had slept in and ignored many a Sabbath. I had often disrespected my parents. I had stolen dime comic books from the local drug store. I had coveted my best friend’s English bicycle and exquisitely detailed model train set. At 18 I had no opportunities to commit adultery, but I knew I had lusted in my heart. And I wasn’t so sure I had escaped the injunction against killing if that included the small game that I shot at with my .22 rifle.  Later I would learn that some theologians, including Martin Luther, said that the commandment not to murder meant that “we neither endanger not harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”* I could not be sure I had lived up to the exacting command to not kill either.

So what kind of saint had I encountered on that patio on a hot night in Texas fifty-five years ago – a young man who actually believed he had kept two of the ten commandments?

I never saw him again. Maybe he did become a priest. Maybe he’s a bishop or cardinal somewhere. Maybe he’s teaching young seminarians about the strident requirements of the Ten Commandments.

Then again, maybe he ended his short life in Vietnam, as so many did in that era.

The strange thing is, out of all the young men I marched with, bunked with, showered with, and chowed down with in basic training, he is the one I remember most vividly.

I think of him every time I read the Decalogue.

He reminds me that God’s standards of moral comportment are high.

“God threatens to punish all who break these commandments,” Martin Luther wrote. “Therefore we are to fear his wrath and not disobey his commandments.”

But Luther also wrote, “God promises grace and every good thing to all those who keep these commandments. Therefore we also are to love and trust him and gladly act according to his commands.”*

God has set high standards for our behavior, but God’s love for us is not conditional on whether we are able to behave ourselves.

In fact, all of us will find this impossible at many points in our lives.

But even when we despair at the depth of our sinfulness, God’s love and grace remain unconditional.

As I think back on that young man I knew for one short hour in my life, I wonder if he has reached the same conclusion.


* Luther’s Small Catechism

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Singing the Internationale


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Joe Biden and Jesus Talk


“We oughta be ashamed,
We oughta be ashamed,
We use and abuse
such a wonderful name.”
– Johnny Cash and Elvis Costello duet

April 25, 2019 – Joe Biden’s entry into the 2020 presidential sweepstakes today is no surprise. Many Americans yearning for a more traditional political landscape may welcome his hat in the ring.

The former vice president is by far the most experienced candidate for the presidency and from that some may deduce that he is also the best qualified. He sat in tight proximity to the oval office for eight years and was an active partner to Barack Obama when important domestic and foreign policy decisions were made.

Some will say his main impediment is his age, 76, but that doesn’t bother me. Joe is only four years older than me and he, Donald Trump, and I were all in elementary school at the same time. Within this unlikely trio, I don’t doubt Joe is the most physically and mentally healthy.

Some will say he has been too much of a hands-on politician, occasionally making women feel uncomfortable with his hugs and shoulder massages. In that case, voters will have to decide for themselves whether his touches are benign or malign, but he is not the only politician who slaps backs, squeezes arms, or massages shoulders. Who can forget Chancellor Angela Merkel’s stunned surprise when President George W. Bush snuck up behind her and squeezed her shoulders?

If Biden does have a problem with style and longevity, it may be due to the fact that his public record extends all the way back to 1970 the he was elected to the New Castle, Del., County Council. There are a lot of opportunities in 49 years for misjudgments and gaffes to stain one’s otherwise stellar performance.

For many, Biden’s greatest public error was his performance as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991 when he and other senators peppered Anita Hill with harsh and occasionally humiliating questions. Hill had credibly accused nominee Clarence Thomas of sexist and inappropriate behavior. Biden said last month he regretted his performance 9n 1991, but he has not personally apologized to Hill.

Biden is also known for his spoken gaffes, though when he misspeaks it is rarely because he wants to hide the truth. He inadvertently announced his support for marriage equality weeks before the Obama Administration had decided its policy on LGBTQ rights.

The gaffe I remember most vividly, because I was still on the staff of the National Council of Churches at the time, appeared in a 2009 interview in the Wall Street Journal.

Joe said: “I can see Putin sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ, Iran gets the nuclear weapon, who goes first? Moscow, not Washington.’”

Many will see nothing wrong with that statement, but it shook many church persons to the core. Here was the vice president of the United States using the Lord’s name in vain.

The statement attracted much more attention in 2009  than would a similar utterance by Donald Trump today.

In many churches and church agencies, people were saying, “Say it ain’t so, Joe. A nice Catholic boy like you, using and abusing such a wonderful name?

I’d like to say I was shocked by Biden’s use of Jesus Christ, but that would be a slight exaggeration. Most of us hear the name used every day, often devoid of its intended theological significance. For many, the name has lost its power.

Even so, Mark Tapscott, the editorial page editor of the Washington Examiner was sorely offended by the then Vice President’s use of the JC word and asked, “How many more stupid comments does it take before his handlers in the White House realize it’s time for this dunce to retire?”

Of course Biden is no dunce, but I was puzzled why he let his guard down during a press interview. Didn’t he remember his constituency was now larger than Wilmington and there might be folks out there who would be deeply pained by the casual way he used the wonderful name?

For many, this kind of rhetorical carelessness leaves scars that last for decades.  In 1974,  American Baptists organized a theological communications center in Green Lake, Wis., and invited media luminaries like Dick Gregory and Norman Cousins, who came, and ABC science reporter Jules Bergman, who didn’t.

In lieu of Jules, the agency sent Ashley Montagu, the British anthropologist and humanist known for his appearances on Johnny Carson and who had changed his name from – and I’m sure that wouldn’t have bothered Baptists in the slightest had we known – Israel Ehrenberg.  Montague and his saintly wife Marjorie spent a week at Green Lake, Marjorie memorable for her sweetness and Ashley for his Bermuda shorts, black knee socks and surly disposition.

Ashley was, as I recall, a brilliant presenter, but for decades I would run into conferees who were still angry about only one of his sentences: “I am a Unitarian,” he told us, “and the only time you hear Jesus Christ mentioned in my church is when the janitor falls downstairs.”

So let’s not forget that a faux pas like Biden’s will hurt and dismay a lot of folks. Ashley’s reference may have been insensitive, but I think he understood Who he was talking about when he said “Jesus Christ.”

I suspect it might have been different with Joe. If you grow up in certain parts of the United States – including blue collar Wilmington and Philadelphia – you quickly learn there’s more than one Jesus. Joe probably moves back and forth between them, deferring with due respect to the Savior and relating more casually to the others. There is, of course, the second Person of the Trinity Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the World, the figure Baptists know as a “personal Savior” and Catholics like Joe encounter in prayer, hymns and the awesome power of the Eucharist. Believe me when I say (and listen up Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner), Joe Biden is not dunce enough to speak that name with disrespect.

Without delving too analytically into Joe’s political record, it’s obvious it reflects a good Christian upbringing and an understanding that Jesus Christ loves and accepts everyone, notwithstanding a bias for the poor, and calls on us to treat one another like good neighbors. I am sure Joe would never take the name of that Jesus in vain.

But there are Jesus figures that Joe also knows, and they have little to do with the One who was in the Beginning with the Word.

First of all, of course, there is the Jesus of the epithet whose name often springs to tongue but who is not regarded by those who use it as the Second Person of the Trinity. It is a name used for emphasis, as in, “Putin is sitting in Moscow saying, ‘Jesus Christ,’” or for emotional release when you need a quicker way of saying, “Please, dear, stop spilling your molten coffee into my lap.”

Then there is the unJesus whose name is removed in vain from Christmas and Easter so it doesn’t get in the way of holiday marketing, or the nonJesus whose name is used by televangelists Pat Robertson to justify “taking out” foreign leaders, or the fauxJesus quoted in Vice President Mike Pence’s condemnation of LGBTQ humans. And let’s not forget Action Jesus, Bobblehead Jesus, and I don’t care if it rains or freezes Jesus.

When my wife Martha was in seminary in the early 80s, she and her suite mate would exchange stories of their educational experiences, including student pastorates and clinical pastoral education. The suite mate’s CPE assignment was a psych ward where she encountered the full range of mental illnesses: addiction, depression, agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder and the classic delusions of schizophrenia. Citing patients of special interest, she reported, “I have three Jesi.” No doubt each of them preferred to be called Jesus Christ, and that’s just one reason the name has lost its power.

But names are merely words and words only have the power we assign to them. I don’t think Joe Biden’s use of the words Jesus Christ implies in any way a disrespect – or a lack of awe – for the Second Person of the Trinity. He may think twice about using them in a press interview again – but that would be a political judgment, not a matter of faith.

In the context of faith, the power of the Trinity will never diminish. The power of words, on the other hand, is subject to individual understanding, and context.

In my own context, when I was growing up I never heard Jesus’ name spoken disrespectfully. My mother’s angriest condemnation was, “Piffle,” which was embarrassing enough. But the anglicized name of the Lord was always used with respect, and I still wince when I hear it used as an epithet.

But I’ve got to wonder: does – He – wince when he hears it?

In fact, Jesus never heard it uttered during his time on earth.

The name he answered to was Yeshua Bar Joseph.

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