Reading

I love reading. If I ever find out I have 24 hours to live, I know how I will spend it. I will buy the best bottle of Cognac I can afford, gather up a nice assortment of cheese, crackers, and olives, stack a few books of interest within reach, then drink, eat, and read myself into the next world. I’ve been sick all this past week, and there were a few nights when I was close to wanting to do exactly that.

As a kid, I was fortunate to have two great storytellers in my life: my dad and his mom, my grandma. It was a rare night that I didn’t get a bedtime story. First there was Dr. Seuss, of course, and other children’s books like Go, Dog Go!, The Mice Who Loved Words, Never Tease a Weasel, and dozens of Little Golden Books. When I got a little older, I became enraptured with the Mother West Wind books by Thornton Burgess, the Bobbsey Twins, and then (fanfare, please): The Hardy Boys!

The first book I read entirely by myself was What Spot? (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1369269.What_Spot_) At some point our grade school librarian introduced us to the Newbery Medal books, and I made it my quest to read them all…in chronological order. I remember my dad’s frustration when I had trouble finding a copy of Smoky the Cowhorse (1927 winner) at our local library. “Why don’t you just read the next one?” “No!” A series of frantic phone calls (on a rotary phone) located Smoky in a library at the opposite end of town; dad reluctantly drove me there so I could my project uninterrupted. (I like to think he was privately proud of my dedication.)

I never made it through all the Newbery Medal books on that first attempt. Many years later, though, this time as an adult, I decided to revisit that earlier goal. With the help of the librarians in the children’s room at the Cambridge Public Library and the miracle of interlibrary loan, this time I finished! The latest Newbery winner at the time was Richard Peck’s A Year Down Yonder (2001). With only two exceptions, I’ve kept up with the Newbery winners ever since, and frequently encourage other adults to check out the children’s section next time they’re in the library. Lots of good reading there. But no Cognac.

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New Faces Needed

Kenneth Copeland lives in a $6.3 million dollar mansion. When he flies, he does so in one of a fleet of 5 multi-million dollar private jets. According to beliefnet.com, his net worth is $760 million (https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/christianity/8-richest-pastors-in-america.aspx). He is also one of the most visible faces of a religion that purportedly follows a man who famously spent his life among and as one of the poor. For the past several days, the internet has been having a field day with a widely circulated video showing Copeland being interviewed by Lisa Guerrero, a reporter for news magazine Inside Edition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LtF34MrsfI). In the video, Copeland is not only incapable of forming a complete sentence, or of making the least bit of sense, he looks like a Hollywood casting agent’s dream candidate for the role of Demon in a low-budget thriller.

Why does the church put up with these guys? Small wonder young people are avoiding the church when its most public figures are loons like Copeland, television slick-talkers like Benny Hinn, and bigoted fanatics like the Westboro Baptist Church protesters. How can anyone take Christianity seriously when prominent Evangelical pastors tout Trump as if he were the natural successor to Jesus Christ?

Ever since Ronald Reagan threw open the doors of government to his religious fundamentalist buddies, the face of Christianity has been not Jesus teaching the Beatitudes on the mount (Mt 5:3-11), but a parade of well-dressed and undeniably charismatic superstar preachers. It’s time for churches to speak up, and stop letting these greedy bigmouths control the dialogue. We need some new faces, and we need them fast.

Nerdfighters and Community

At 55, I am much too old to be a Nerdfighter. Even Nerdfighter founders John and Hank Green, who joke these days about their own ages (41 and 39, respectively), are considerably my juniors.  Nevertheless, in the Nerdfighters, I have found a community that brings me great comfort and connection.

For those not in the know: The Nerdfighter community grew up organically around the Green brothers, author John and web entrepreneur Hank, beginning with their YouTube VlogBrothers channel back in 2007. Since then, both Greens have become wildly successful, and their handprints are everywhere with projects like Crash Course, SciShow, podcasts, conventions, bestselling novels and movie adaptations. Through it all, they keep in close touch with their fans. A Nerdfighter is defined as someone who “is made entirely out of awesome.” (Yes, there is an entire Nerdfighter lexicon. https://nerdfighteria.com/).

John has said a Nerdfigher is someone who is not afraid to express unironic enthusiasm. Perhaps this is the quality that most attracts me to the Nerdfigher community. In an age where irony has become the normative way of seeing and expressing our emotions and those of others, it is refreshing to wholly embrace feeling, whether it is a passion for literature, soccer, science, or marshmallow Peeps. This enthusiasm is apparent in the tagline with which the Greens end all of their broadcasts: “Don’t forget to be awesome!”

Outspoken atheist Kurt Vonnegut frequently advised people to join a church if for no other reason than to be part of a community. Sometimes churches can feel threatening to an outsider though. Whether it is a perceived holier-than-thou attitude, the baggage of a long history of narrow-mindedness and scandal, or simple fear of a place filled with unknown ritual and terminology, churches are not necessarily as welcoming as Nerdfighters. What can the church learn from the Greens? To borrow another phrase from John: This is not a rhetorical question.

 

Living in the Question

I was baptized, raised, and confirmed in the United Methodist Church. I spent a good deal of time as a child attending Sunday school, church services, vacation Bible school (now usually called by its hip initialism “VBS”), youth group, choir practice, and an assortment of church family nights, potlucks, caroling, etc. In college, I had a minor in religious studies. My present day job is as a worship arts coordinator in an RCA (Reformed Church of America) congregation. All of which to is to say the church has had a big role in my life.

So why is it that I still have so many doubts about not only the small niggling Biblical oddities and contradictions, but even about the most foundational aspects of faith? One thing I have learned for sure is that faith cannot be forced. I’ve tried and failed. It feels phony. It makes my brain hurt. My good friend Craig Ferguson (not the late night TV host but pastor of River of Life Church, an outreach of the UMC congregation in which I grew up) once told me he enjoys “living in the question.” It’s not a satisfactory answer, but I like it nonetheless. It implies that there is more to explore. It tells me doubt is not wrong, but rather an indicator that there is a reason to continue seeking.

I am a Type A personality. I like answers. Vagueness bothers me. Living in the question makes me uncomfortable. My ongoing effort to find answers leads me to dig deeper. It takes me into dusty corners, down hidden hallways, and often humbles me by forcing me to change my mind. By embracing doubt, my faith becomes fuller. Sometimes I feel afraid and discouraged. Then I remember that neither Job nor Jeremiah received satisfactory answers to their questions either. I’m in good company.

Overcoming Self-Centeredness

I have been sick all this past week, and am only now beginning to feel like I am truly on the road to recovery. When one is sick, the only thing that matters is oneself, and trying to whip that self back into a healthy state. Ironically, I was just thinking along these lines when I picked up a back issue of Christian Century and began reading an article by William Brosend on keeping the self out of one’s preaching. (“Enough about me,” February 23, 2010).

Self-centeredness is a hard habit to break. I have spent much of my life attempting a career as a professional musician, and it is an occupation very given to the self. Lots of time spent practicing alone. Many auditions trying to prove one’s superiority over the competition. Scores if stage appearances basically screaming, “Look at me!” I have spent a lot of time focused on myself.

And yes, I am aware that this post is wildly guilty of shining the spotlight on myself.

Doing things with and for other people is not always easy. The rewards can be slow in coming. It can be easy to get frustrated and cry, “I’d be better off just doing this myself!”

But as difficult as it can be working with and for other people, it can be even more difficult working with and for God, especially if one has nagging doubts about the very existence of God. A lifelong habit of self-centeredness can make acknowledging God feel wildly out of character. It’s a struggle. Brosend writes, “If you saw someone that you think the congregation would like to know about, tell them about that person and get yourself out of the way.” Maybe I just need to practice getting out of my own way.

 

What Can Coincidences Teach Me?

I’ve never been big on noticing signs and omens, and I have historically tended to ignore them on those occasions when I did notice. Lately though, I’ve been seeing more connections between things, and paying more attention.

Take The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I hadn’t intended to read it, but the universe seemed to want me to. Three times in one week, while reading other things, I came across references to The God of Small Things. I was beginning to think to myself, “Maybe I should check this book out,” when I found a copy of it on a table in our apartment building where people sometimes leave books for other tenants to take. I picked it up, and just finished reading it yesterday.

Go back in time for a moment, to when I was a little kid. I was with my parents, visiting an older couple from our church. The adults were in the living room chatting, drinking coffee, doing adult things. I was in a small den, listening to my first transistor radio. A song came on that I loved immediately. I would later identify it as “Ruby Tuesday,” by the Rolling Stones.

Back to The God of Small Things. Near the end of the book, one of the main characters is listening to a song:

There’s no time to lose
I heard her say
Cash your dreams before
They slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you
Will lose your mind.

“Ruby Tuesday.” And how is the character listening to these lyrics? On a transistor radio!

And now I’m thinking of another memory:
I have been cast as the young boy Randolph in a local high school production of Bye Bye, Birdie. I am 10 or 11. The music director is teaching me to sing Randolph’s songs in the school’s Choral Room. And there are posters of somebody named Mick Jagger on the wall. I wouldn’t learn who Mick Jagger was for a few more years, and it would be some time after that that I finally connected him to “Ruby Tuesday.”

Do any of these connections mean anything? Well, if you subscribe to the idea of synchronicity, maybe. Jung described it as “meaningful coincidence” or “acausal parallelism.” I don’t fully understand Jung’s theory of synchronicity, but I’m going to go with my own theory: Even if interesting coincidences have no underlying connection, and even if disparate events in the universe aren’t connected and trying to send me secret messages, if I spot connections which strike me as meaningful then for me those connections are real. The message I take from them is mine to decipher.

This puts the responsibility of interpretation on me. What do a brilliant but depressing book and a rock song from the 1960s that impressed me as a kid have to share with each other and with me? As I get older, and realize that I have not realized my dreams, the passing of time has been weighing heavily on me. As I read the lines from the song in the book, they struck home, just as they are striking home now as I reproduce them for this little essay. Interestingly, there is some uncertainty as to one of the words in the lyrics to “Ruby Tuesday.” Arundhati Roy writes, “Cash your dreams…” In at least one place online, I found, “Catch your dreams…” Or maybe it should be, “Cache your dreams…”
“Cache: store away in hiding or for future use” (Google dictionary).

I have some more thinking to do. Why haven’t I been able to catch my dreams? Or did I not store them properly? Or is it time for me to cash them in? I will start paying closer attention to “coincidences.”

Tanning

Yes, I’ve heard all about how it will give me skin cancer. Yes, I realize it is feeding my vanity. Yes, it is not cheap in terms of either money or time. But still…

…I tan.

I have tanned indoors. I have tanned outdoors. I have done it for many years, and most likely will continue to do so. Not only do I like the way I look with a bit of color, I enjoy the warmth and relaxation of a good sunbath. Some of the best naps I get are in sunbeds. Tanning is also part of a virtuous circle for me: When I am tan I am inclined to show a bit more skin. When I show a bit more skin, I want to be fit, so I exercise more. When I am following a fitness regimen, I watch my diet more closely and look and feel better as a result. A heightened awareness of my body brought about by diet and exercise makes me more conscious about my dress and overall look, which includes…

…my suntan!