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Notes from Isolation...

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

Original plan: I had dreamed of writing a clever post describing the way the week had unfolded, marking the highs and lows of both my energy and symptoms, and the effects of all of this on my attention span as I tried to “make the most of a week at home.” I would explain that after watching the newest movie version of Jane Austen’s Emma (all I had the energy for last Sunday afternoon, and even then it was accompanied by a driving headache) I briefly considered spending the week revisiting a couple of Austen classics, but that this only got as far as rereading those wonderful first sentences of Emma.

I would tell of the postponed interview with the Board of Ministerial Standards and Education on Tuesday, and how glad I was that they didn’t take me up on my suggestion of “how about tomorrow?” because when tomorrow came there wasn’t much more of me there than there had been yesterday.

I would write about the Zoom staff meeting toward which my biggest contribution was to press the mute button and cover my face with my elbow while silently (to my colleagues) erupting into coughing fits.

And I’d mention that decision (which seemed so cautious and conservative at the time) to pass my preaching duties over to a very gracious Nelson Metcalfe. At the time, way back on Wednesday, when recovery seemed imminent, it still looked like wisdom to give myself a bit of time to rest, when the reality has turned out to be that here it is Saturday and I can still only speak in half-sentences between essential cough breaks.

But there has been improvement. The headache went away quickly, the fever stopped after a few days, the sore throat has turned into a sore ear, and the cough, well—it’s now a part of Who I Am. After Sunday I did find myself able to read at least, and it’s been a pretty good week for reading, even if not for much else.

Note: As a movie person, it was surprising to me how little I reached for the remote to watch something. (I did see four movies in total: the aforementioned Emma (2020); the late-1980s silly/shallow/sad Steel Magnolias, which I watched with Dee over a couple of evenings, and which featured an amusingly cranky Shirley MacLaine; D.A. Pennebaker’s rock documentary Monterey Pop, about the famous 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, at which Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar, Pete Townshend smashed his, and Indian Ravi Shankar mesmerized the crowd with his humbly-presented but very impressive sitar; and the devastating anti-war movie Come and See, a 1985 film from a Soviet director about the atrocities the Nazis unleashed on hundreds of Belorussian villages in WWII.)

So what did I read?

First, I finished reading Italo Calvino’s strange novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller. I had heard about this book for ages, and have owned a copy for probably twelve or more years, but had never made it past the first few pages. This time I persevered, and was well rewarded. The plot is basically that a Reader is trying to read a new book, but when he gets to the end of the first chapter finds that it doesn’t continue. When he finds another copy of the book, it turns out to be a different book, which also ends after one chapter. The book contains about eleven book-beginnings, yet somehow unfolds a story of its own the Reader’s adventure of trying to finish the book. But it’s more than just a puzzle or a trick. Calvino’s book asks about our motives for reading, and wonders whether there is such a thing as an ideal or innocent reader. More literary-minded folks tend to look down on those who just burn through fast paced and heavily plotted thrillers, but isn’t there something (Calvino suggests) wonderful and childlike about picking up a book just to enjoy it rather than to uncover deep meaning or, worse (and here’s where I am guilty too), to learn to write?

I’m not sure many (or any) of my friends would actually enjoy this book, but its questions are worth mentioning to all book people, and especially to Bible people (though it is by no means a Christian book). Too often “Professional” Bible readers (those who preach or teach or write books about the Bible) forget what it was like to open up a Bible and expect to hear the voice of God speaking. True, we may get to a place where we question some of our earlier Bible reading strategies, but what a pity it is to lose the expectation and hope of communing with God as his Word comes alive to us. In the great eighth chapter of Calvino’s novel, a novelist looks down at a reader and longs for some kind of a return to the immediacy of that kind of reading/writing. May we pray for the same in our daily Bible reading.

Second, I read a middle-grade fantasy novel called Wings of Fire: The Dragonet Prophecy. This has been on my desk for over nine months. Why, you may ask? Because at the beginning of the year I made an offer to read a book or books of each of my family members’ choosing during 2022. I’ve taken till October to open up this book about five young dragons whose destiny it might be to restore peace to the warring world of dragons. By leaving this book unopened on my desk for so many months I incurred a certain amount of judgment from its recommender. But now I have read the first book (I agreed to the first five in the series), so I can hold my head high once again. And to tell you the truth, I am enjoying the story! I don’t have any wise pastoral words that have come to me from the depths of the mountains and caves of Pyrrhia, but I can say that I’m always happy to have a book to share with my kids.

Third, and most recommendable, I read Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s Clouds of Witnesses. For those of us who know Christianity as a part of the Western European heritage, it’s easy to either be blind to our own limited worldview or to throw Christianity away as an inescapably western colonial relic. Noll and Nystrom provide seventeen mini-biographies (each from about twelve to fifteen pages) of Christians from the Global South. It’s divided into sections on Southern Africa, West Africa, East Africa, India, Korea, and China. Each section contains fascinating portrayals of key figures in Christianity in each of those regions (mostly 20th century). Here the complicated history of colonial/missionary Christianity is fully acknowledged, but so is the undeniable strength (and sometimes eccentricity) of the forms of Christianity that have flourished among the peoples of those regions.

Biography is one of those genres that every time I read it I think, “I should do more of this.” To watch Christ at work in the lives of others is a powerful reminder that he might be at work in ours as well. And to see the way Christian faith plays out in cultures very different from our own can also help us to see more clearly that the things we take for granted in our own culture may not be essential to the gospel itself.

The power of Jesus and the gospel to liberate oppressed peoples (as in many of the stories from Africa) and to challenge and interact with political systems (as in the chapters on China under Communist rule) are some of the areas that readers might want to zero in on.

I hope that Clouds of Witnesses becomes for me what I think it was designed to be: an entry-point into becoming familiar with more stories of followers of Jesus from all around the world.

A few more books that I'm currently reading:

1) Winsome Conviction: How to Disagree Without Dividing the Church, by Richard Langer and Tim Muehlhoff--a book that looks at "disputable matters" and attempts to sort out how to follow our convictions and allow others to follow theirs... the big question, of course, is how to categorize "disputable"...

2) Basic Ecclesial Communities: The Church on a Small Scale, by Jose Marins and Teolide Trevisan--a short account of the phenomenon of base communities in Latin America and around the world, small groups of (usually Catholic) Christians gathering to read the Bible together and finding themselves pushed into the world in the liberating name of Jesus.

3) The Ladder of Monks/The Twelve Patriarchs by Guigo II (12th century)--a little classic on lectio divina, the art of spiritual reading.

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