Winter, Christmas, and What to Do While We Wait

Luke 19:11–23

The following is the text of a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 17 November, 2019 at Grace Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey. It was accompanied by a week of devotionals that are posted here. The devotionals are posted in reverse order. If you read them, read from the bottom up.

Introduction

It is a privilege to look into the Word of God with you this morning, one for which I am grateful. I’m grateful for all of your prayers, and for the support and encouragement I’ve received in preparing for this day. Would you pray with me?

Almighty God, we thank you for your presence here with us in the person of your Holy Spirit. May each of us, myself especially. hear what the Spirit would say to us today. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Winter

Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday in the current liturgical year. December 1st marks the beginning of Advent and a new year. The end of the liturgical year looks forward to the end of the current age, to the time when Christ will come to restore and reign over His creation. I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about that restoration, but first we need to look at what needs to be restored. Then, at the end, we’ll look at what to do in the meantime.

This summer I decided to read through C.S. Lewis’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia. I have finished only four books. In the beginning of C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, who is the first person who travels through the wardrobe? Whom does Lucy first meet in Narnia? What kind of creature is Mr. Tumnus? Mr. Tumnus is a faun. Not a cousin of Bambi, but a creature that is half goat and half human. Mr. Tumnus tells Lucy that the place where she finds herself is Narnia, and Narnia is under the control of the White Witch, who has corrupted the climate so that it is, in Mr. Tumnus’s words, “always winter but never Christmas.”

Some of you may feel that it’s always winter but never Christmas now, either because of personal circumstances or because of the state of the world we live in. This is nothing new. We read these words from Isaiah 59: 9–11:

9 Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.

10 We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes; we stumble at noon as in the twilight, among the vigorous as though we were dead.

11 We all growl like bears; like doves we moan mournfully. We wait for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.

We don’t need the eyes of a prophet, though, to see that we live in a time of corruption and loss. Some of the trouble may come from ourselves, from poor choices that we make or from idols that we set up that turn us away from God. Some of the trouble we experience comes from evils in the society in which we live. Look at how racism and xenophobia have increased in the last few years in many places in the world, including the supposed melting pot that is the United States.

Some corruption has affected the physical environment, which in turn has effects on other things. Think about the recent wildfires in California. Extreme environmental conditions, probably worsened by climate change, combined with alleged human failures, have disrupted many lives through fire damage, power outages, and evacuations. Closer to home, each one of us probably knows someone, or knows someone who knows someone who has contracted a disease linked to environmental corruption. My own brother had a form of leukemia linked to industrial chemicals that he was exposed to as a carpenter.

The corruption that is evident in the world affects more than just the people in the world. Genesis 3:17–18 tell us that thorns and thistles will infest the ground as a result of the fall. In our time we are seeing wildlife population losses and even extinctions from human causes. A study published in October in the journal Science reported that the bird population of the United States declined by about twenty-five percent between 1970 and 2018. Even the state bird of New Jersey, the American Goldfinch, might have to move its nests out of state because it will be too warm in New Jersey in the not-too-distant future. These might seem like trivial things, but birds and bugs and bigger beasts are all part of the creation that God called “good” in Genesis 1:25. Matthew 10:20 tells us that not one sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware of it.

One of the saddest manifestations of the corruption of our age is in the Christian Church. Pastor Margo decried this state in her sermon last week. Maybe you are convinced that the religious right has sold its soul to the devil. Maybe you’re convinced that the progressive church is sliding down the slippery slope to apostasy. Presbyterians call themselves “people of the middle way,” so maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, wondering if the Church in America will ever be able to stand up and bear witness to the mercy and grace of God again. False teachers and false gospels seem to dominate the spiritual landscape. How it must break the heart of God to see the church in such a compromised, confused state.

Christmas

Soon it will be Christmas. Soon. Not yet.

In spite of the corruption that we see around us, restorations are possible here and now. We pray for someone who is injured or ill, and often that person gets well. The human body has a remarkable capacity to recover from illness and injury. My mother-in-law fell down a flight of stairs a little over a year ago. She was almost ninety-five at the time and we all thought she would quickly decline and become unable to care for herself. But you prayed, and we prayed, and about six weeks later she walked back into her own home. We give thanks for the medical science that supports such healing while we acknowledge that all knowledge, including medical science, comes down from above, from the Father of lights.

Restoration here and now is possible in the world of animals, birds, and other creatures. The local NPR station reported recently that a skunk had been spotted in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Indiscriminate pesticide use in the early twentieth century had all but eliminated skunks from Long Island. Now they’re making a comeback. I think skunks are cool. I don’t befriend them, though, and I wish they would replace their divots! Bald eagles are fairly common now in the Meadowlands. Peregrine falcons are making a comeback in unlikely places, including the New York metro area and Chicago. Of course, deer, bear, and even turkey, once scarce in parts of New Jersey, have come back in force and are now considered nuisances in many towns.

I wish I could be sanguine about recovery in civil society and the church. We seem to become more polarized by the day, if not the hour. Social media and some news outlets magnify the divisions among us. James 4:1 warns us not to speak evil of one another, but that warning is falling on ears covered by noise-canceling headphones. In contrast, one of the reasons I look forward to coming to Grace is that we seem to be able to put our private passions aside, at least long enough to worship and serve the Lord together. I’m pretty sure we don’t all agree on all of the issues that we face in this country, but that doesn’t show when we’re together here.

Although we may see some short-term restorations, we know that they are just that. Lazarus left his tomb, but eventually he had to return. Nick reminded us a few weeks ago that graves were opened when Jesus died on the cross; it may have been the outcome of Jesus descending to proclaim the good news to the souls in Sheol. But anyone who emerged from the grave on that day eventually returned to it.

There is coming a day when Christ will come to restore His creation fully and reign over it. Ralph Acerno took us to the New Heaven and Earth two weeks ago, using Revelation 21 and 22 as his text. I’m sorry to say, though, that his sermon did not get recorded. It was a good one. Isaiah also tells us about New Heavens and a New Earth in Isaiah 65, which we read together a few minutes ago. It bears repeating.

Isaiah 65:17–25

17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.

20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—and their descendants as well.

24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.

25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. We’ll have work to do, and we will enjoy the fruits of that labor. I like that the New Heavens and the New Earth feature agriculture. Wildlife is also prominent, as we also saw from the passage in Isaiah 11 that Mia read from earlier:

6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Isn’t that wonderful? Aren’t you ready for that now?

Now we know from the first coming of Jesus that He didn’t fulfill the expectations that many Israelites had for their Messiah. He had His own agenda, and some Old Testament prophecies about His coming and His earthly ministry were fulfilled in interesting ways. As Ralph Acerno said two weeks ago, the same is likely to be true in the New Heavens and New Earth, so it will be interesting to see how some of these prophecies of the second coming become physical reality.

What to Do While We Wait

Jesus is coming back. “No one but the Father knows” when that will be. Meanwhile, we are not to sit on our hands and stare at the cosmic clock, crying “How Long, O Lord,” and waiting for it to strike thirteen.

In the passage that Dylan read so clearly in Luke 19:11–23, Jesus told a parable about a nobleman who went on a journey to receive a royal appointment. He gave ten of his servants one mina, or pound each (about the equivalent of a day’s wage) and told them to use the money to do business on his behalf while he was away. There are some unsettling details of this parable, and we might wonder why Jesus included them, but the central message is that the servants were given resources and an assignment and then were given rewards based on how well they carried out that assignment.

We have to be careful not to read too much into parables, but it’s apparent from the outcome that this was intended as a test. We can easily imagine, without stretching the text, that the nobleman was going to be appointed governor of the province. As governor he would need to delegate authority. So, this was his way of finding out which of his servants could handle the additional responsibility.

One took the assignment very seriously and increased the sum entrusted to him by one thousand percent. Another increased it by five hundred percent. The nobleman praised and rewarded those two servants for their diligence and efforts. A third servant took the money and hid it, citing his fear and disdain for the nobleman. That’s not a good strategy for getting a promotion and raise, and the foolish servant paid the price for it.

Jesus is away on a journey. He has ascended into heaven. Before He departed, He gave His disciples and, by extension, us, assignments to work on while He is away. He also gave us resources to invest. We’ll look at some of them in our remaining time together.

In Matthew’s Mark’s, and Luke’s gospels and in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus tells his followers that they are to go into the world and make disciples, and for that we have the Word of God and the Spirit of God as our resources. Some of you host Bible studies. You teach in Sunday School or youth or children’s ministries. You support missions through Grace’s mission program or through private donations to missions agencies. Some of you might even be courageous enough to tell people that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. I’m not always that brave.

Jesus told His disciples in John’s Gospel that the world will know them for who they are if they love one another. I think Grace Church understands this commandment well and takes it seriously. You pray for one another. You take care of one another in tangible ways, such as through the Prayer Ministry, the Mercy Ministry, and the Meals Ministry. You have gifts of compassion and hospitality, given to you by that same Holy Spirit, that enable these ministries.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus talked about giving cups of cold water to those in need, feeding hungry people, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers, tending to the sick, and even visiting those in prison. Such needs are evident all around us. God may have given you financial resources, time, and energy for these ministries. God also gives gifts of compassion, generosity, and hospitality to enable us to meet these needs. Over the years, because of the passion and abilities of Grace Church members, our church has entered into ministries that carry out these assignments. Think of MESH. Think of IHN. Think of the Montclair Sanctuary Alliance.

Pastor Leggett’s absence has also opened a window of opportunity for us to look ahead and think about what kind of church we want to be in the future. Joel’s prophesy tells us that those of us who are get senior discounts dream dreams. Our brains make sense of what they see by evaluating it in terms of past experience. Those who are younger see visions. They imagine things that don’t yet exist. Who are the dreamers and visionaries of Grace who will imagine and implement new ways of advancing the kingdom of God from this corner of Montclair? As I look around this congregation, I see young adults, families with young children, GenXers, a lot of Baby Boomers, and a good number of octogenarians and nonagenarians. You are Deacons and Elders. You take care of our IHN and MESH guests. You put together special events for the Grace family. I don’t see the Sunday School teachers because they’re elsewhere in the building.

You take care of church property, church finances, meals ministries, visitation ministries, communion preparation. You serve on ministry teams, serve communion, or sing in the choir. Maybe you do several of those things. You show up week in and week out to worship in this place when your bodies might be telling you to stay home and watch some megachurch pastor. Like the diligent servants in Jesus’ parable, you take the resources that are entrusted to you, you invest them wisely, and you steward them carefully. God bless you for that.

Perhaps you are passionate about concerns that aren’t currently represented at Grace, such as literacy, hospice care, or creation care. Maybe you volunteer at Mountainside Hospital, coach a sports team, or sponsor a child through Compassion International. During the growing season I spend a couple of hours a week planting, weeding, and harvesting at City Green’s farm in Clifton. There are so many needs and so many opportunities to work toward meeting them.

In your stewardship of time, energy, and finances, though, I hope you give Grace Church a position of prominence. The church is not going to survive, let alone thrive, on casual commitments.

Christmas is coming. Jesus may be preparing to return at this very moment. May God bless you as you invest the resources that He’s given to you while you wait for His return.

Most gracious Heavenly Father, we are humbled that you have entrusted so much of your business to us, the imperfect creatures that we are. May we be good stewards of all the resources that you have entrusted to us, our time, energy, passions, skills, and even our finances, as we carry out that business. Thank you above all for our Lord Jesus, who died for the sins of the world, and whose return we await. In His name we pray. Amen.

Thank you very much for stopping by and for reading this far.

Pat

Floating Advent wreath on Lake Woerth, Austria
Floating Advent wreath on Lake Woerth’s water surface of the bay, country market town Velden on Lake Woerth, district Villach Land, Carinthia / Austria / EU Photo by Johann Jaritz [CC BY-SA 3.0 at (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/at/deed.en)%5D

Book Read: NO TIME TO SPARE

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What MattersNo Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin

Between 2010 and 2017 Ursula Le Guin wrote a blog. No Time to Spare collects forty posts from that blog written between 2010 and 2015. These posts discuss aging, vulgar language, letters from adult readers, letters from readers who are children, literary awards, war and the journey home from war, The Great American Novel (it’s The Grapes of Wrath, by the way), the place and value of fantasy in literature, feminism, soft-boiled eggs, sacrifice on behalf of others, a food bank, a child’s quest for knowledge, and many other things that were on her mind at various times. Le Guin also tells the reader about her cat, named Pard, an abbreviated form of Gattopardo or Pardo.

If you have finished your summer reading and are not yet ready to turn to the more serious literary pursuits you have planned for autumn, No Time to Spare will provide you with a couple of hours of enlightening, funny, and thought-provoking reading.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Book Read: PROUST AND THE SQUID

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading BrainProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf

I don’t recall how I first learned about Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, but I know that the reference included this quote:

As soon as an infant can sit on a caregiver’s lap, the child learns to associate the act of reading with a sense of being loved. (p. 82)

Any adult, whether a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or unrelated friend who has ever read to a small child understands that sentiment. So it was sentiment that first got me to start reading this book. Sentiment only took me so far; the details of the development of writing and the neuroscience of reading that fill most of the book soon proved too intimidating. I returned the book, unfinished, to the library.

The quote stuck in my head, however, as did the sense of disappointment at not finishing. So it was back to the library for an interlibrary loan of the only copy in our consortium. In the meantime I’d also become involved with an organization that advocates for evidence-based approaches to dyslexia, a form of neurodiversity in which the brain must learn to use different circuits to decode the letters on a printed page and make sense of them. Coincidentally, as I was finishing Proust and the Squid, I started reading Ordinary Grace, which features two characters who, in the time period in which the novel is set, were considered retarded or mentally defective because of the differences in the ways their brains worked.

Having finished reading on the second attempt, I can affirm that Proust and the Squid is a great read. Beginning with technologies that are tens of thousands of years old—knotted bits of rope, scratches in clay or stones or turtle shells—Wolf traces the history of written communication in the first section of the book through the development of alphabets. As humans moved from one technology to another, the human brain adapted to the changes and contrived new changes to make the process of passing on knowledge both easier and more robust. Alphabets in particular had the biggest impact on the brain’s ability to acquire and process information through written records.

The second section discusses the development of an individual’s ability to read. Here’s where the neuroscience can seem a bit dense, but a complete apprehension of the details is not required to follow the narrative arc. When a person reads, certain circuits in the brain are activated. With practice, the brain needs less energy and time to process, or decode, the information that the eyes encounter on the printed page or digital device. Wolf describes in enlightening detail that is timed in milliseconds what happens when a fluent reader sees a word, applies past experience and existing knowledge to it, and grasps the information that is being communicated in the current encounter.

This is where Proust comes in. According to Wolf, Proust saw reading as “a kind of intellectual ‘sanctuary’ where human beings have access to thousands of different realities they might never encounter or understand otherwise. Each of these new realities is capable of transforming readers’ intellectual lives without ever requiring them to leave the comfort of their armchairs.” (p. 6) What a gift the ability to read fluently is.

Where does the squid come in? In the third section Wolf likens dyslexia to a young squid’s inability to swim fast. The squid is both predator and prey. In order to survive, a squid must be able to swim fast. “Scientists in the 1950s used the long central axon of the shy but cunning squid to understand how neurons fire and transmit to each other, and in some cases to see how neurons repair and compensate when something goes awry.” (p. 6) The young squid that can’t swim fast must compensate and develop different survival strategies and tactics, and those strategies and tactics must function automatically. This requires that the squid brain be reconfigured to compensate for the lack of ability to swim fast. (Wolf does not state this explicitly; I infer this.) The child with dyslexia must also compensate when the brain circuits that usually enable reading fail to function properly.

Wolf concludes the section on dyslexia by identifying numerous famous individuals who are said to have, or have had, dyslexia and who have accomplished much in spite of it. Children and adults who have dyslexia or any one of a number of differences are not defective or inferior, as was once thought. Like any science worthy of the name, neuroscience is constantly learning and adjusting its understanding of how to help people with dyslexia and other examples of neurodiversity thrive.

If, as I do, you have a family member or friend who has a form of neurodiversity like dyslexia, reading Proust and the Squid can help you understand that person’s strengths and challenges. It’s not a beach read; maybe wait until the evenings get a little cooler and start a little earlier and give yourself a few undistracted hours to learn how it is that you can process such marvelous writing.

Thank you for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: SEMIOSIS

Semiosis (Semiosis Duology, #1)Semiosis by Sue Burke

Some time deep into the twenty-first century, a spacecraft leaves Earth on a voyage that will take 158 years. The fifty occupants are fleeing a planet damaged by climate change and roiled by the conflicts that the change has set in motion. When they arrive at a planet that is likely to support human life, only thirty-four make it alive to the planet’s surface. They bring with them technology they will need to survive, but some of the technology also fails to arrive safely. The colonists on Pax, as they name the planet, need to quickly learn which features of their new environment will enable their survival, and which will threaten it.

We learn within the first few pages of Sue Burke’s Semiosis that features of the environment can quickly change from enabling to threatening. Three of the colonists are poisoned by fruit they could previously eat safely. Thus we are introduced to the central premise of the story: the highest intelligence on this planet belongs to the plant life.

Plants on Earth communicate with one another through their root systems. The plants on Pax do that as well. They also reason, defend themselves, resist the influence of other plant species, and betray one another. One species, the bamboo, is able to learn human language, including written language, and communicate with the colonists. The bamboo, which is referred to by male pronouns, becomes a character in the story and is named for one of the original fifty travelers who did not survive the voyage. At times it seems that the bamboo even evolves during the just-over-one-hundred years that elapse in the course of the story.

In her opening sentence, Sue Burke refers to war as a way of life for the plants. I’m not sure that’s accurate. There is conflict, and the plants can do harmful things to control the animals, including humans, and harass the animals that they don’t like. The plants can also be beneficent. Details of these assertions might include a spoiler, so I will let readers discover those details for themselves.

There is much human conflict. It takes place between individuals, between political factions, between generations. One of the Pacifists, as the colonists are known, is raped as an act of political intimidation. Others are murdered. An assassination sets a rebellion in motion.

In case any eleven-year-old boys are reading this review, here’s a detail that should excite them: The colonists refer to their latrines as “gift centers.” They collect their poop as gifts for the plant life. Older readers looking for more titillating content might be interested to know that sex plays a significant role in the story. With so few colonists present at the start of the endeavor, fertility and procreation are essential. Frozen sperm and ova are part of the original supplies the colonists bring, but the colonists also employ more traditional means of growing the population. Some of the males are infertile, so their spouses are impregnated by other unattached men. Burke never describes lovemaking in detail, however. There is also no profanity, and I am grateful for that.

The plant science and chemistry lessons may be worth the price of admission for some readers. In the early going the colonists analyze plant chemicals to determine if a plant is poisonous, or how it suddenly became poisonous, or why a crop suddenly begins to fail. In a later chapter the plant chemistry references are delivered rapid fire. Oddly, plant species are similar to those found on earth: bamboo, onions, tulips, locust trees, even oranges. Animal species are very different: cats and lions seem to be built more like kangaroos than the cats we know on earth. Eagles have feathers but are earthbound. Some crab species have nine legs, slugs eat human flesh, and corals are venomous.

I learned about Semiosis from the “Science Corner” blog, which is written by Andy Walsh, my son. I’m glad that I followed that lead and added it to my reading schedule. Semiosis is an imaginative, thought-provoking novel. A sequel, Interference, is due out this October. I’m looking forward to it.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: THE CASE FOR CIVILITY

The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on ItThe Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It by Os Guinness

It would be easy to believe that The Case for Civility was written in 2017 and published in 2018, rather than being published in 2008. Os Guinness’s discussions of civility, the public square, the behavior of political figures, and the separation of church and state are as much about the current era as they are about the early 2000s. This is a book that thoughtful people would do well to read now.

The public square is the focus of much of this book. Guinness devotes three chapters to the “sacred public square” where the wall separating church and state has been completely breached, the “naked public square,” where the wall is intact, well fortified, and heavily guarded, and the “cosmopolitan and civil public square.” In the cosmopolitan and civil public square the worldviews and ways of life of all people are respected and allowed to inform our participation in that square.

In arguing for a cosmopolitan public square in particular Guinness does not suggest that we abandon the systems of belief and practice that make us who we are. He acknowledges, in fact, that such abandoning is impossible.

To be blunt, there is no universal human language. There is no reason common to all humans. There is no agreed rational consensus of values. There is no scientific and universally valid philosophy. There is no humanity without borders. There is no Parliament of Man or Federation of the World. There is no all-inclusive form of identity that will embrace everyone without exception. There is no final form of universal civilization toward which history will progress. There is no pure humanity beyond complexity, and no unity below all human diversity. All these ideas are utopian longings that die hard. (p. 147)

Those words are hard to read. To all we meet we must say, if only in an imagined dialog, that we acknowledge the freedom of conscience that they must be allowed to exercise even as we exercise our own freedom. We must also acknowledge that there are rights and wrongs in all worldviews and ways of life, including our own. Can we learn from others’ worldviews and practices in a way that affirms the freedom to hold worldviews that differ, sometimes radically? Can we move toward a public square that is part of a “world safe for diversity.” According to Guinness, and as the subtitle of the book states, “our future depends on it.”

Os Guinness is a Christian apologist and social critic. He is a direct descendant of Arthur Guinness, the founder of the Dublin brewery. You can read more about him here.

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat

Book Read: BEING MORTAL

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

The April 2019 issue of Christianity Today includes a list of “five books that provide comfort amid terminal illness.” The list was compiled by Kathryn Butler, a trauma surgeon and also the author of a book on end-of-life medical care. Dr. Butler has this to say about Being Mortal:

“Although he does not write from a Christian perspective, Gawande’s best-selling book offers invaluable insight on aging, nursing home care, hospice, and care goals. He provides key advice to help us interpret the intricacies of a foreboding medical system. Gawande emphasizes reflection upon what makes life meaningful.”

That’s an accurate representation of the book’s message as I understand it. The writers who contributed endorsements for the back of the book jacket used the words “affecting” and “moving” to describe it. That reflects my response to it as well.

Atul Gawande is a brilliant writer and a brilliant individual. His writing, and the stories he tells in this book, display humility and self-reflection that seem out of place in the life of such an accomplished and esteemed physician and author. That is part of what makes this book so moving. He tells stories of people who could easily be the reader’s aunts, siblings, parents, or next-door neighbors. They all faced serious medical issues at the end of life, and Gawande discusses how the American medical and elder-care systems, the subjects’ families, and the subjects themselves dealt with those issues. He is not shy about pointing out the errors that he and his colleagues have made in dealing with them.

In telling these stories, the author provides readers with lessons on the history of elder care and the care of individuals with life-threatening illnesses. Where did the concepts of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities come from? Who cared for the aged and the terminally ill before these institutions came into being? What effect have these institutions had on our attitudes and behavior toward aging and terminal illness? Who is innovating in these fields? Who is turning their own lives upside-down to provide more thoughtful, compassionate care to their elders or those whose remaining time in this life is short.

This book is personally affecting. I was the last family member to visit my father in the hospital before he died of lung cancer and emphysema. A little over two years later my brothers and I stood by our mother’s bed, in the house that had been her home for over seventy-five years, when she succumbed to ovarian cancer. My older brother and I visited our mother’s last surviving sibling, an older sister, in her nursing home, and he fed her a last meal of ice cream just hours before she died. More recently my younger brother died of leukemia. He had come to believe the doctors considered him little more than a data point and a test subject as they discussed and planned the treatments that he eventually stopped. Even more recently I watched from a greater remove as several acquaintances and friends passed through illnesses that ended their lives. I see all of their faces in the pages of this book.

I am eligible for Medicare now myself, and I can’t help but wonder—even without reading Being Mortal—what lump or mole or ache or weakness will signal the start of something that will take me through my last days. I’m not a hypochondriac, but I have regular checkups. I also know that I am much closer to the end of my earthly life than to the beginning. I think I may be a bit better prepared to think about what that end might look like having read Being Mortal.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: HIDDEN FIGURES

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Katherine Johnson is one hundred years old as of this writing. Hidden Figures tells her story, as well as that of Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three of the African-American women who were known as computers in the organization that is known today as the National Aerospace Administration (NASA). Their skills as mathematicians were needed to help design and build the airplanes that the U.S. needed to fight in World War II and the Korean conflict. Later the aircraft and rockets they helped design enabled the U.S. to enter and compete successfully in the space race, from the flight of the first Mercury capsule to the Apollo program that put astronauts on the moon and returned them safely to earth.

A movie with the same title was released in 2016. The movie dramatizes the events of several years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the climax coming as Katherine Johnson is asked to check once more the calculations for the trajectory that would put John Glenn into orbit. I saw the movie during its original run in the theaters. It’s a great movie to watch with children or grandchildren.

Margot Lee Shetterly tells Johnson’s, Vaughan’s, and Jackson’s stories, and many others, with admiration that approaches but doesn’t cross over into hagiography. Her writing is clean, polished, and unpretentious. I must admit that, having seen the movie first, I was expecting a bit more drama, and it took me a few pages to adjust to the the author’s pace. By the end, though, I was sorry not to have any more of the story to read (so I read the acknowledgments).

In telling the stories of these women, Margot Lee Shetterly also tells the story of segregation and the mistreatment of blacks in the U.S. in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. I can’t help wondering how many more Katherine Johnsons, Dorothy Vaughans, and Mary Jacksons there were in Virginia, West Virginia, and elsewhere who would have made equal or greater contributions to many fields of knowledge were it not for the lack of opportunity, resources, and respect they encountered.

The contribution of these women has been acknowledged as the U.S. has moved through the Civil Rights era. In September 2017 NASA named a new facility the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility. Unfortunately, opportunities and rewards for women and people of color still lag behind those available for white men. I hope that Hidden Figures—a thoroughly enjoyable, rewarding, and thought-provoking book—has started some conversations and actions that will help to close the remaining gaps.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Book Read: SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the ChurchSearching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

When I tweeted that I had started reading Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday, my son asked if a review would be forthcoming. A friend of his, another scientist, liked that tweet. I said that I would try, but that I was not sure I could do it justice. I don’t have any credentials to write a legitimate review. If I enjoy reading a book, or if I find it helpful or instructive, I will write a brief piece describing what I found enjoyable or helpful about the book and post it to Goodreads and to my blog. To borrow a metaphor that is sometimes used to describe evangelism, it’s more like one beggar telling another where to find bread. With that said, here are some observations about Searching for Sunday.

Rachel Held Evans is a gifted writer. Searching for Sunday is written in such a way that it could be read aloud and understood by many, if not most English speakers. She is smart. She is honest about her fallibility and vulnerability. A reader who is looking to engage with her and not pick apart her arguments—and there are many who delight in picking apart her arguments—will appreciate her telling of her story. Unlike other progressive Christian writers, Rachel Held Evans does not infuse her writing with profanity. She may cuss up a storm in her private communication. In her writing for publication she refrains. May her tribe increase in that respect.

The structure of Searching for Sunday is “part-memoir, part-meditation on the seven sacraments of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.” (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/…) Those sacraments are baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. Rachel Held Evans uses the sacraments as a framework for the story of her early devotion to Evangelical Christianity, her disillusionment with it, her search for a new home for her faith, and her finding or building several homes in online communities and a physical congregation. As she says in a chapter entitled “Epic Fail,” church “is a moment in time when the kingdom of God draws near, when a meal, a story, a song, an apology, and even a failure is made holy by the presence of Jesus among us and within us.” (p. 113)

Readers with limited time (although a serious reader could finish Searching for Sunday in one sitting) would do well to spend that time in the section on communion. That is where we see the author’s passion for the Church, the body of Christ, most clearly.

Anyone who reads the news or listens to NPR knows that American Christianity, maybe all of Western Christianity, is struggling with questions of identity. Searching for Sunday gives a view into that struggle through the eyes of one who is living it every day. Someone reading this might think the struggle has been lost, that Western Christianity is the dying relic of ancient superstitions. Someone reading this might also be struggling with their own faith or might be curious about how people of faith can still cling to theirs. One of the important messages of Searching for Sunday is that God cares for us and meets us in our struggles, in our brokenness, and in our need. We can’t and won’t know the answers to all of the questions and objections that we and others might raise, but we can know that God won’t turn us away for having raised them, and we can know that we do well to raise them in community.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Saturday in the Soil

The soil is finally warm enough to be worked. It’s also not muddy, unlike in past years. So a mild Saturday provided a great opportunity to start preparing the garden, all one hundred square feet of it, for planting.

We sowed winter rye in the fall. Winter rye is one of several plants that local garden experts recommend as cover crops. Cover crops grow quickly, protect the soil from erosion, and pull carbon from the atmosphere. Because they grow later into the fall they provide these benefits when all the other annual plants have died from the cold. In the spring it’s a simple matter of turning the soil, plants and all, to keep the carbon and other organic matter safely in the ground and available for new crops.

Winter rye grass
Winter rye grass in late winter.

We compost all year long. Several times a week we take a repurposed cookie jar filled with egg shells; vegetable and fruit cores, stems, peels, and rinds; coffee grounds; and tea bags out to a large beehive-shaped composting bin. Once or twice a month, maybe more frequently in some months, this hash of rotting vegetable matter gets mixed up to help even out and accelerate the process. Several buckets of compost came out of the bottom of the bin this year. After sifting, the yield was about a cubic foot of humus, which was supplemented with some commercially produced compost and manure and dug into the garden.

Composting has the added benefit of reducing the municipal waste stream. A conservative estimate puts the amount of vegetable matter that goes into our compost bin at over two hundred pounds per year. It includes approximately 300 egg shells, 200 banana peels, 500 tea bags, and enough grounds for 300 cups of coffee. If ten percent of the households in our city kept 200 pounds of vegetable matter out of the garbage every year, that would reduce the amount hauled to landfills by several truckloads every year. My approach to food and food waste is not entirely consistent with sustainable consumption practice, however. Bananas, for example, are never in season in New Jersey. Neither are oranges, coffee, or tea, but that doesn‘t stop me from consuming them. I have some work to do.

There’s a lot of good, interesting (yes, really!) reading available about soil health and its relationship to food security and the environment. Below are some suggestions for your reading pleasure. If you have read something else and would like to recommend it, please leave a comment.

Meanwhile the garden, with its seedlings and seeds, compost and mulch, is an exercise in hope. In a few weeks, God willing, we will have salad greens and more. In a few years, God willing, a larger “we” will see the results of our efforts to keep additional carbon out of the atmosphere. The effort we put into our hundred-square-foot garden will bear infinitesimal results toward that end, but we hope that others will make a similar effort toward sustainable food production and consumption and add their infinitesimal results to a larger total.

Meanwhile, I wish you God’s blessing, abundance, and peace this spring and for the balance of the Lenten and Easter seasons.

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat

Annie Dillard, THE ABUNDANCE

The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and NewThe Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New by Annie Dillard

A photograph of Annie Dillard appears on the back flap of the dust jacket for The Abundance. Annie Dillard has a Pulitzer Prize. The photograph should show her with a contemplative expression on her face as she stares off into the distance. Instead, the photograph shows a woman with a broad, toothy smile and twinkling eyes that are looking directly into the camera lens.

If you met that woman at a social gathering or at coffee hour after a church service you might think even before she speaks that she has something wonderful that she wants to share with you. We meet that woman in The Abundance. She has many wonderful things to share, an abundance of wonderful things, if you will.

The Abundance is a collection of previously published essays. They display the gift that Annie Dillard has for being present and observant in the midst of the most mundane and the most stimulating events, then relating those events in language that makes us want to experience them for ourselves. Well, maybe we don’t want to experience all of them; some are harsh and tragic. But some are laugh-out-loud funny. Some are described as if they were hallucinations. Some indeed may be hallucinations.

Two essays in particular are worth the price of admission. “Total Eclipse” from Teaching a Stone to Talk is the first essay in this collection. It was reprinted in Summer 2017 in The Atlantic Monthly as the United States awaited an eclipse whose totality traversed much of the country. “Being Chased” from An American Childhood is reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.”

The foreword by Goeff Dyer is also worth reading even if you never read forewords. Dyer mentions Eudora Welty, who reviewed Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Welty admitted occasionally not knowing what Annie Dillard was talking about. (p. xix) Dyer writes “On the humor front it helps, also, that Dillard’s pretty much a fruitcake.” (p. xviii) This comes after he quotes “Total Eclipse”: “The mind wants the world to return its love, or its awareness; the mind wants to know all the world, and all eternity, even God. The mind’s sidekick, however, will settle for two eggs over easy.” (p. xviii)

Finally, from “A Writer in the World,” which originally appeared in The Writer’s Life, we get this glimpse into the generous, brilliant, eccentric mind of the smiling woman on the back dust jacket flap.

One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems to be good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The very impulse to save something good for a better place is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.” (p. 115)

Thanks for stopping by!

Pat