The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic is not the ideal time to be reading a postapocalyptic novel, especially one with passages as brutal and horror-filled as Borne has. I’ve read a few other postapocalyptic novels: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?The Children of Men, and The Road. They all have violent passages, but much of the violence takes place off the page. Or maybe the images of the violence have faded in my memory. In any case, Borne has been a challenging read.
Interested readers can find plenty of synopses and reviews of the story, so I won’t attempt to provide one here. There is a clear environmental message—the apocalypse comes about through climate change—but Jeff VanderMeer also takes on corporate attempts at world domination and government collusion in those attempts. To balance those messages, VanderMeer weaves narratives of friendship; childlike playfulness and eagerness to learn; trust, mistrust, and distrust; courage, resilience, hope, and loyalty.
How do those narratives fit into such an outwardly dark novel? Surprisingly, they fit well. If the reader can tolerate sometimes graphic violence set in a bleak landscape, Borne will reward persistence.
An On-Going Imagination is a memoir or autobiography composed by interview. It consists of edited versions of conversations that Brueggemann had with his coauthor, Clover Reuter Beal, over several years beginning in 2011. Clover Reuter Beal is the Colead Pastor of Mountview Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Denver. She and her spouse, Timothy Beal, who edited the book, are former students of Brueggemann’s.
The book retains its conversational origins in its tone. It includes conversations about some complex theological subjects, and if time were to permit I would want to read further on those subjects in Brueggemann’s books and essays. That is the genius of the work. Walter Brueggemann is a brilliant man with a lot of intriguing things to say about scripture, theology, the state of the ancient world, and the state of the modern world. Further reading of his work on any of those subjects would be time well spent. It’s interesting, though, that the list of works cited and suggestions for further reading includes only sixteen titles. Then again, Walter Brueggemann has published over one hundred books.
In the chapter entitled “Divine Irascibility: An Astonishing and Scandalous God,” Brueggemann admits that some of what he sees as he examines the scriptures “confront[s] orthodox Christian theology in disturbing and fascinating ways.” I find some of his positions challenging. In challenging orthodoxies, though, Brueggemann’s goal is not to tear them down but to stretch them in ways that adherants ultimately will find beneficial.
In the spring of 2017 the city of Clifton’s recreation department planted a tree in a nearby park in memory of my brother, Tim, who had passed away the previous fall. (We had paid to have the tree planted.) The tree, a thundercloud plum, is a native species that is known to thrive in a variety of soil conditions.
I’ve done what I could to help the tree thrive. I filled the Treegator® bag that the city placed around the tree with water throughout that first spring and summer. Last year I top-dressed the soil around the tree with manure and spread a layer of mulch around the trunk, being careful not to pile the mulch against the trunk.
To my eye the tree hasn’t grown much, if at all, in the three years since it was planted. It’s certainly not thriving, as other thundercloud plums in the neighborhood are. Was it a poor specimen to begin with? Is the soil in that park especially poor or too damp? There aren’t any other trees or shrubs in the park area, so there is little to which to compare our tree’s growth.
I’m beginning to wonder if the tree might be lonely.
In recent months I’ve read two books that discuss tree communication. Both are works of fiction. Most recently I’ve read The Overstory by Richard Powers, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. It was a gift from my friend, the poet Sandra Duguid Gerstman. The chapter that introduces Patricia Westerford, and later sections where her work intersects with the activities of other characters, are full of fascinating tree science. Part of her story line focuses on the science of how trees communicate with one another. Even though the book is a novel, I understand the science to be authentic and accurate.
Last year I read Sue Burke’s debut novel, Semiosis, which is set in an alien world. It features trees and plants that not only communicate with one another but also learn to communicate with the humans who have come to live on their planet. The plant science is extrapolated to fit the alien environment and serve the purposes of the plot, but again, I understand the underlying phenomena to be observable here on earth. Then there’s The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. The book, and Wohlleben’s work, are discussed in a 2018 article published online by Smithsonian.
Is our thundercloud plum lonely? It’s surrounded by grass. The nearest other trees are old oak trees that are about a hundred feet away. The possibility of them being “aware” of the presence of our tree, or sharing resources with a tree of a different species, is very slight. So what should I do to help our tree thrive? I don’t know if I could justify the cost of a companion, and I don’t know if the recreation department would supply another thundercloud even if I could. I will try again to fertilize it this spring. When I applied fertilizer last spring, I did so after the tree had flowered last year, and fertilizer should be applied before it flowers. So maybe that did more harm than good.
The notion that our solitary tree might be lonely reminds me of the words of Ecclesiastes 4:9–10. “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor.If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.” (NIV)
Whether you’re a person dealing with the realities of everyday life or a tree trying to survive in an unfavorable environment, it’s always better to have company.
Wipf and Stock, located in Eugene, Oregon, publishes under several imprints, including Cascade Books, which is the imprint that Down to Earth bears. I’ve also read one of their novels, Death Comes to the Deconstructionist by Daniel Taylor, published under the Slant imprint. Wipf and Stock periodically makes free epub downloads available to readers who subscribe to their newsletter and who are willing to create an account with them. Down to Earth was one of their recent free download offerings.
At 142 pages, Down to Earth packs many thought-provoking arguments into a short work. It is well researched and documented, including 325 endnotes and a nine-page bibliography. As the subtitle suggests, Richard Floyd approaches climate change and other elements of ecological diminishment from a Christian perspective, specifically a Reformed Protestant perspective. He discusses the work of theologians Jürgen Moltmann and Sally McFague as they consider ecology and theology. The specific branch of theology where Floyd engages both theologians is eschatology: what will become of the creation and its inhabitants, human and otherwise, at the end of time.
Related questions come up from time to time in my reading and in my contemplation of the things I read. Were there predators and parasites before the fall? Will the restored creation include predation and parasitism. Isaiah 11 looks forward to what we refer to as the peaceable or or peaceful kingdom. The wolf will live alongside the lamb, but if the wolf no longer preys on lambs, does it lose its essential wolf-ness? Richard Floyd thinks that wolves might still prey on lambs in the restored creation.
In discussing Moltmann’s and McFague’s eschatologies, Richard Floyd finds much to commend and much to disagree with. I’m not qualified to take up his arguments, defend them, or prosecute them. I have been challenged in my thinking, however, about what happens to the creatures with whom we share this planet when Christ returns to restore all things. He is clear in his assertion that God cares deeply about what happens to them. God’s intentions toward them may not be the same as God’s intention toward the creatures who are capable of fellowship with God, but God’s intention is for their welfare nonetheless.
How are we to respond to that knowledge? In humility, in “taking our stand with the dirt,” which is the title of the fourth chapter. Here is how Richard Floyd closes that chapter:
When we take our stand on the bit of dirt beneath our feet, when we commit ourselves to solidarity with the dust and, by that, solidarity with the entire interconnected web of existence, when we embrace humility, it is this cosmic process and no other—this beautiful and broken, graced and grieving creation that God so loves—to which we finally consent (p. 101).
How does that work itself out in our daily interaction with the creation? Floyd cites efforts by the PC(USA), in which he is an ordained minister, to separate itself from the fossil fuel industry. Of greater interest to me is the work that churches and religious organizations in the southeastern United States are doing in sustainable and regenerative food production. Readers won’t find checklists of steps that they can take to reduce their carbon footprint. Concerned readers can find plenty of sources for such lists. What readers will find are pleas to see and contemplate our connection to the creation and to act in concert with it rather than exploiting it. Here’s how he closes the final chapter:
But we may have a foretaste of glory divine, we may experience the beauty of the new creation here and now, by contemplating the world as a good in itself, rather than simply as a good for us. True, we cannot do this perfectly; we still need to eat, we still need to use creation. But we may contemplate it in this way haltingly, and we may practice to deepen our capacity for such contemplation. We may go out to meet the beautiful other; we may become beautiful ourselves in so going out; we may be suffused with the divine beauty that both lures forth ever-new, fecund possibilities and gathers up all that has become. Hope for the new creation is hope for the creation itself, in all its fragile beauty. It is hope for the dirt, the dirt in which we stand, the dirt of which we are made. In such hope we may not only taste the new creation; we may also learn to cherish and preserve the creation we already have. We may even discover that they are one and the same (p. 133).
Down to Earth: Christian Hope and Climate Change has made an important contribution to my understanding and thinking about creation care and the restoration of creation at the return of Christ.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
Karen Swallow Prior includes three short stories in the list of titles she discusses in On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books. The first two are “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Connor. Characters in those stories are held up as examples of humility. The third short story is “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. It is included in a collection of his short stories that also bears the title Tenth of December.
The main character in “Tenth of December,” a pudgy schoolboy named Robin, is held up as an example of kindness. Robin exhibits kindness on a day when the air temperature barely reaches ten degrees Fahrenheit. Driven by a heroic fantasy, he sets off on an adventure in the woods adjacent to his home. He finds a coat on a bench near a pond, the coat belonging to a terminally ill man who has come to commit suicide by hypothermia. Robin sees the man, grabs the coat, and sets out across the frozen pond to reunite the two. It’s a great story; I encourage you to read it yourself to see how it plays out.
The other nine stories in Tenth of December are also worth reading. In my limited experience, especially with short stories, I find several to bear similarities to Flannery O’Connor’s stories. The characters are realistic but with some exaggerated flaws. There are elements of science fiction in several stories. One story “Escape from Spiderhead,” reminds me of Ted Chiang’s story, “Understand,” which is included in Stories of Your Life and Others. In “Understand,” a victim of a near drowning in an ice-covered lake is given an experimental drug that expands his cognitive abilities immeasurably beyond the range of human intelligence. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” a convicted and imprisoned criminal is given experimental drugs through a remotely controlled IV pump. These drugs can do such things as “lower [one’s] shame level to nil” or “pep up [one’s] language centers” (p. 48) with astonishing and even tragic outcomes. “My Chivalric Fiasco” also features a drug that wreaks havoc on the main character’s life.
George Saunders is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow. I am not qualified to analyze or critique his writing. I can get on my hobbyhorse for a few seconds, though, and wonder why he needed to use language that is still censored in broadcast media throughout most of the stories in this collection. Now for the dismount: I enjoyed all of these stories. They are thought provoking, challenging, and sometimes funny. I commend them to your attention.
Reading Ethan Frome is my first exposure to Edith Wharton’s writing. That admission makes me wish, once again, that I had paid more attention in high school English classes and taken a more English literature classes in college. The edition that I borrowed from the local library features an introduction by Bernard DeVoto. I suspected I was in trouble when he used the word “dithyrambs.”
Edith Wharton’s text is finely crafted. The writing is formal, proper, precise, and a bit spare. Owing perhaps to that spareness, Ethan Frome is a novella; the edition that I borrowed is 181 pages long, not including the introduction. It begins with an unnumbered chapter that serves as a prolog and is set in the recent past from a first-person narrator’s perspective. The main narrative concerns a few days twenty years earlier in the life of Ethan Frome, his wife Zenobia (Zeena), and Zeena’s cousin Mattie Silver, who lives with them and serves as Zeena’s housekeeper and cook. A final chapter serves as the epilog, set once again in the more recent past.
Zeena is presented first as a sickly woman, although it is suggested that she has worn herself into this condition by helping Ethan care for his ailing mother. Zeena is no longer capable of fully meeting Ethan’s needs. Ethan enjoys Mattie’s company much more, and he learns near the end of the main narrative that she has feelings for him as well. A crisis arises that threatens to separate them forever. Ethan and Mattie discuss several options for escaping the crisis and remaining together, finally settling on a drastic course of action that—minor spoiler alert—ends in a way that they do not anticipate.
Mr. DeVoto tries to convince the reader that Edith Wharton did not care about her characters and how they got on (or didn’t), that the perfectly constructed story was her sole aim. I’m not convinced, but I will let his assertion stand without further comment. Ethan Frome does remind me of other characters from American fiction. His desire to have Mattie for himself, despite her being pursued by at least one eligible bachelor, reminds me a little of Ichabod Crane from Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Ethan’s tendency toward unfaithfulness also reminds me of Clyde Griffiths from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, who sets aside and ultimately causes the death of his pregnant shop-girl girlfriend Roberta Alden in his pursuit of socialite Sondra Finchley.
Ethan Frome is one of twelve works of fiction that Karen Swallow Prior discusses in her outstanding book from 2018, On Reading Well. Each work of fiction is analyzed as a story about a virtue. Swallow Prior treats Ethan as an antitype for chastity. I’ve read half of the twelve works that Swallow Prior discusses; the rest are on my to-be-read list and I’m thinking of making the reading of them one of my goals for 2020.
If you’re a competent reader, and you’ve never read Ethan Frome, it could take you as little as a couple of hours to finish. That would be a couple of hours well spent.
The Dirty Life is filled with enough quotable lines to fill several reviews or blog posts. That suggests that if you are at all interested in how the food that we eat can be grown, you will find a few hours invested in this book well spent. As someone who has spent many hours pulling weeds on a local urban farm, I found a lot in this book that I understand and appreciate. There is also much about this book and the life that Kristin and Mark have built on Essex Farm that is truly humbling. I’m looking forward to reading Kristin Kimball’s second book, Good Husbandry.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.