Archive for September, 2017

Dust and Silence: Two Small Reflections

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Part I: Dust

Genesis 3:19b: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

I shall return to dust. So, will you.

Such is the decree the scriptures make as a reminder to every child of God willing to humbly acknowledge his or her material origins. It is especially aroused in the memory of Christian believers who kneel at the altar on Ash Wednesday and receive the sign of the cross written in ashes on their foreheads.

I recall thinking this was a sobering and fearful pronouncement when I first knelt to receive the ashes of Lent.

But the promise of God, the creator-redeemer-sustainer, has changed that and taken away my fears. Dust is not nothingness. And despite sounding harsh to human ears, the return to dust is a return to our origins. Even DNA goes to dust.

And, as an added assurance, contemporary quantum physics has supported my faith optimism, which assures me that the most fundamental material of the universe is dust!

We will all become dust again, no matter if we are buried, incinerated, blasted into irretrievable particles, devoured, or lost in the depths of the sea. We will return to the material out of which the Lord God created us.

Dust is God’s material; the potter’s clay; the soil of sustenance; the stuff of galaxies and the periodic table; the mysterious dark matter.

Dust speaks to me, saying, “Be at ease; the Potter remains at work.”


Part II: Silence

In the Hebrew scriptures, the First Book of Kings relates the story of the prophet Elijah.

As that book nears its conclusion, Elijah, fleeing the angry wrath of Jezebel the sinister wife of King Ahab, is miraculously led by an angel and kept going for forty days until he reaches a cave at Mount Horeb in the Sinai desert. This location is the same region, many scholars tell us, where Moses first spoke with the great “I AM.”

Here Elijah learns that God reveals himself in the windstorm, and more powerfully in the quaking of the earth, and also in a roaring fire (perhaps of eruption).

But then the surprising text tells us the prophet discovers that God is found in the “sheer silence.” (I Kings 19:12)

The New Revised Standard Version gives us the startling Hebrew expression in English: “the sound of the sheer silence.”

And probably you, as did I, thought singer Paul Simon was the first to write about the sounds of silence!

Sidetracked by three authors in August

Monday, September 4th, 2017

Call me a peruser of books.

Typically, I survey a book for at least fifteen or twenty minutes before deciding I wish to read it. Then it goes into a pile or on a list where it might languish for weeks or months before I engage it again. My Kindle Reader app contains five or six times as many “free samples” as it has purchases.

August surprised me this year because three books I encountered kept me reading after a first perusal to the point that I knew I wanted to engage fully what these authors address. Here I merely introduce them to your consciousness.

Sidetrack One: Reinvestigating Children’s Literature:

Serendipity led me to Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, (New York: Simon & Schuster. 2017) a reminiscence by Bruce Handy, an editor at Vanity Fair (and, more importantly, a father who recalls reading to his children). His book appears packed with surprising wisdom and anecdotes.

Go back, as Handy does, and read the growing-older Christopher Robin’s sad announcement to his Pooh in the final chapter of The House at Pooh Corner. Young Robin knows he is soon to leave for a faraway school:

“I’m not going to do Nothing anymore.”

“Never again?” Pooh responds.

“Well, not as much. They don’t let you.”

When it comes to Children’s Literature, I have been a sampler: a little Pooh, a little Spock, a little Silverstein, a little C.S. Lewis, a little E.B. White. In perusing Handy’s engaging handbook, I wanted to drop everything and dive into the genre like an enthusiastic graduate student. I’ve already put on reserve at my public library Handy’s recommended In The Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, by Bette Lord.

I remember from my studies as a graduate student of psychology the lesson I learned reading Gail Sheehy’s comments after her book Passages became a runaway best-seller. She confessed that her first task before starting to write was to go to the children’s section of a library and read everything she could find on her subject.

To quote the greatest book, I urge all researchers, “Go Thou and do likewise.”

Sidetrack Two: Truths Leaked from the Classroom:

Each month, despite my lapsed subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style, I am offered a free online book from the University of Chicago Press. In September, that book is The Secret Lives of Teachers (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press. 2015), written by an anonymous New York teacher. He calls himself Horace Dewey, and he works and writes at the fictitious East Hudson High School (which probably means he teaches somewhere in Manhattan or Yonkers or farther upstate on the same side of the river that still houses the notorious Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the village of Ossining).

By remaining anonymous, the author gives himself room to seriously critique schools, students, colleagues, parents, curriculum, administrators, school boards, and politicians.

Anyone who has taught school, be it public or private, surely harbors a suppressed voice of criticism of our nation’s educational systems. Thus, our anonymous New York educator, a “leaker” in one sense of the word, can speak the truth outside of the institution and thus unveil the secret lives and dreams of teachers.

As one who harbors deep criticism of the personnel- and economics-centered policies that rule most schools at the shameful expense of student-centered and humanitarian efforts, I am reading Anonymous closely. I hope to report my conclusions around the time school lets out for Christmas holidays. And remember Christopher Robin’s words about doing nothing: “They don’t let you.”

Sidetrack Three: The Holy Eucharist as an Ambush.

Perhaps I should list my third sidetracking as more of an ambushing. The book, which is about a decade old, has been lying around our house for years. My wife swears she once raved about its importance and significance, but it was just last month I discovered it (in my wife’s bedroom bookcase). Thus, I consider myself ambushed by this story published more than a decade ago.

In a way, the book, Take This Bread: The Spiritual Memoir of a Twenty-first Century Christian (New York: Ballantine Books. 2007), itself relates a kind of ambushing.

Its author, Sara Miles, is a product of an atheistic, socialistic family that encouraged her to read The Sunday Edition of the New York Times rather than bother with any thoughts of going to church. About Jesus, she learned from her father that some believe he was a god, but many believe he was a really, really good man.

Miles attended a radical Quaker college and learned the life of a restaurateur in a New York City kitchen and then went to work as a researcher with a human rights advocacy group. She wound up in Mexico, Nicaragua, and several other international trouble spots, where she became embroiled in revolutionary politics and warfare, learned to eat where there was little food, was shot at, fell in love, got pregnant, and returned for safety to San Francisco, where her daughter was born.

That’s all introductory.

Miles, at the age of 46, one day, while her daughter slept, strolled unintentionally and curiously into the sanctuary of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco and took a seat with about twenty other people there for a service.

At the appropriate time, Miles went to the altar with the others after hearing a woman at the altar table say, “Jesus invites everyone to his table.”

Soon, Miles reports, “someone was putting a piece of fresh crumbly bread in my hands, saying ‘the body of Christ,’ and handing me the goblet of sweet wine, saying ‘the blood of Christ,’ and then something outrageous and terrifying happened. Jesus happened to me.”

Talk about being ambushed!